8th December 2010 Articles
A starter for ten. Name the leaders of three of England’s largest cities — Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Struggling to name even one? You are in good company. I have yet to meet anyone who knows them all, and that includes the Mayor of London and an entire conference of local authority chief executives.
“Is it still Joe Chamberlain?” was the best reply about Birmingham. In fact it is the capable councillor Mike Whitby, who has led a Tory-Lib Dem coalition in the city for six years. Until this May, even the anoraks, not to mention a large proportion of the city’s own residents, were stumped by Leeds, ruled by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition with the two party leaders alternating every six months. Fortunately, Cameron and Clegg didn’t have that brainwave for sharing No 10.
Yet everyone knows who Boris Johnson is, and Ken Livingstone before him. And they know some of the big things they stand for: Ken for the congestion charge and bendy buses; Boris for his bikes, for scrapping bendy buses and for sacking Ian Blair. And both of them for the Olympics, Crossrail and banging the drum for investment in the capital. Without Ken and the credibility of the capital’s leadership London might not have won the Olympics.
This stark visible/invisible contrast is not only between the capital and large cities outside London, but between these cities and their counterparts in the United States. In terms of Google results, US mayors have a web presence a staggering 35 times greater than English council leaders of equivalent size cities — Coventry and Pittsburgh, Liverpool and Omaha, Manchester and Kansas. To get big things done in local government, profile, leadership and the power to mobilise public opinion matter hugely. In the British system strong leaders tend to emerge by accident, not design. This puts these cities at a serious disadvantage in competing with the dominant political and economic weight of London.
I therefore support the principle of directly elected mayors for the 12 largest provincial cities in England, set out in the localism Bill published tomorrow.
Permissive legislation exists for referendums on mayors. This has led a number of mostly urban councils, including Watford, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, to adopt the mayoral model. Research by Manchester University finds that these mayors have generally helped improve services, speed up decision-making and improve public accountability. However, local councillors tend to be against ceding powers to a mayor and have successfully resisted the mayoral model in major provincial cities.
To overcome this self-interested inertia, the coalition should make it a requirement for mayoral referendums to be held in all 12 cities. There is a good case for them all to be held on the same day: local election day in May 2012 is the obvious date. Nearly six million people live in these cities — 10 per cent of the population — so enthusiasm will spread quickly if the Government gives a strong lead.
There is no need to get bogged down on issues of powers and boundaries. If the mayors take on broadly the existing powers of local authority cabinets, subject to proper checks and balances provided by the existing elected councils, they will have plenty to do. Planning, education, public health, social services, regeneration, local transport and many local services will immediately come under their sway. Successful mayors will soon enlarge their effective power well beyond the legal confines. They will also become powerful regional players on issues such as policing and transport where current bodies are largely unaccountable.
The campaign for elected mayors in the big English cities starts now. Business and voluntary sector leaders who want to see their cities thrive will embrace the cause. As they do so, the politicians will follow, however reluctantly.
Looking down will be the spirit of Joe Chamberlain and those great Victorian municipal leaders who made their cities bastions of vitality and modernity — and weren’t prepared to play second fiddle to London.