30th April 2011 Blog
Posts from my tour of the English cities holding referendums on whether they should have executive mayors:
Bristol City Council has had seven changes of leader in eight years. Yet another change of leader could be in the offing after next May’s elections.
But even if the current administration – run by the Lib Dems – continues after May, no-one is sure whether the current council leader will be challenged successfully for the job within her own party group of councillors after the May elections, as happened a few years ago before she regained the leadership in a later vote.
The views in Bristol
Virtually everyone I spoke to in Bristol today thought this was no way to run a great city, and that the city suffered from lack of stable, strategic leadership. There was strong support for an elected mayor from all the business, education and media leaders that I met.
All of them rattled off a list of major challenges facing the city, where a “mayor with a mission” could make a big difference:
Bristol’s main evening paper is also behind the idea, calling an elected mayor “Bristol’s answer to London mayor Boris Johnson.”
Among political leaders on the council, views were more mixed. Both Helen Holland, the Labour leader, and Geoff Gollop, the Tory leader, were keeping an open mind as the public debate on the mayoral proposal starts in the run-up to the May 2012 referendum.
But neither of them defended the topsy-turvy status quo, and both saw potential advantages from a mayor in terms of strength and continuity of political leadership for the city.
Avon not calling
The proposed mayor would be for the City of Bristol. Some of Bristol’s challenges, particularly transport and housing, concern the wider travel-to-work region – dubbed by Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, as CUBA (“the county that used to be called Avon” – the single metropolitan authority which once covered the whole Greater Bristol region, plus Bath and parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire.)
There was little support for re-inventing Avon, so an elected mayor would need to tackle these issues by improving on existing collaboration and co-ordination.
He or she could also make a difference by banging Bristol’s drum louder in Whitehall – which wouldn’t be hard, since there was general agreement that the city punches well below its weight in the corridors of national power.
My verdict so far
So, my verdict from the first of my visits to the 12 cities proposed for elected mayors?
The status quo has few defenders, in Bristol at least. A mayor, if they are any good, could make a real difference, not least by providing greater stability and continuity of leadership.
But mayors alone are not a silver bullet, and to be successful they will need to form strong partnerships well beyond their city boundaries, and with the private and voluntary sectors within and beyond the city.
It will be fascinating to see if these lessons hold true as I continue my tour.
A million people, an annual budget of £4bn – yet an unemployment rate of 10 per cent and among the highest concentrations of poverty in the country.
These vital statistics about Birmingham, Britain’s second city and the largest unitary local authority in Europe, are driving the debate on whether “Birmingham should have its Boris” and vote for a directly elected mayor in the referendum now set for next May 2012.
Should Birmingham have a Boris?
Arriving at Birmingham New Street station, one of the biggest eyesores in Britain, graphically illustrates the sense of malaise and failure in this city. The station is soon to be rebuilt, thanks in good measure to the efforts of the current council leader Mike Whitby, but the fact that it has taken so long, and that so much of the city’s infrastructure and social fabric remains blighted, highlights the challenge and opportunity for an elected mayor.
Jerry Blackett, Chief Executive of Birmingham chamber of commerce, reels off a long list of urgent priorities for the city’s business sector not currently being delivered, starting with the city’s airport which has been due an extension for years but which is still not happening.
Julia King, Vice Chancellor of Aston University, says a mayor could provide “a really significant boost to leadership and profile” for the city, which punches below its weight in so many ways.
Views on the status quo are inevitably more mixed among the city’s politicians. Mike Whitby himself is sitting on the fence on whether there should be a mayor and whether he wants the job. His Lib Dem deputy leader in the city’s Tory-Lib Dem coalition, Paul Tilsley, is opposed.
However, Sir Albert Bore, the city’s Labour Leader, is strongly in favour, and points to the postal referendum which took place in the city a decade ago. A majority voted for an elected mayor on a 30 per cent turnout, but the council ignored the vote.
The Birmingham Mail is also strongly in favour. If my phone-in with one of the local radio stations [from 7:59] is any guide, the “voice on the street” is one of positive interest.
What powers would the mayor have?
This is a big point of discussion among political and business leaders. They are particularly concerned about education, economic regeneration and policing.
The mayor would be in charge of education, as this is an existing power of Birmingham council. But economic regeneration is being vested in the new Local Economic Partnerships, which are having a painful birth, and control of policing is due to pass to directly elected police commissioners – which for Birmingham means a single police commissioner for the whole of the West Midlands.
“This is a complete nonsense,” said one business leader. “If the mayor is to have the necessary clout, he or she needs to have clear responsibility for regeneration and the police.”
The mood in Coventry is less sympathetic to mayors. The city is only 20 minutes from Birmingham by train, but feels far further. Coventry’s business and political leaders point to Warwickshire, not Birmingham, as their economic hinterland, and there is less dissatisfaction with the status quo in terms of leadership and vision.
In my radio phone in here, the worry was about the cost of a mayor, although I pointed out that the city’s existing chief executive and council leader cost a quarter of a million pounds between them in salary alone, far more than the pay of the Prime Minister let alone a new mayor.
But in Coventry, too, the general view is that this city also punches below its weight, and needs to do far more to attract jobs, business and regeneration. “Who knows that we are England’s 9th largest city?,” says Nigel Thrift, the vice chancellor of Warwick University. ”This is one of Coventry’s best kept secrets.”
The political debate is also hotting up here. Bob Ainsworth, the former Defence Secretary and one of the city’s three MPs, has hinted that he might run for Mayor, if the office is created.
One of the city’s younger Tory leaders is also eyeing it up, as are some of its prominent business leaders. “Look at Leicester, a nearby city of similar size to us,” says one. “They are about to vote in an elected mayor, and it could be one of the city’s prominent MPs, Sir Peter Soulsby. Do we want to be left behind?”
Interesting to note that even at this early stage, national politicians like Bob Ainsworth and Peter Soulsby are toying with leaving Westminster to seek to run their home cities as Mayor.
The same happened in London, with Ken and Boris both attracted from the House of Commons to what they saw as the greater challenge of leading the capital. A redistribution of political talent from Westminster to leadership of the major cities could only be a good thing.
Liverpool, the immensely wealthy “second city of the Empire,” has more Georgian buildings than Bath. Some of its historic grandeur has revived with the successful regeneration of the dockside and city centre, and the dysfunctional Derek Hatton Eighties are ancient history.
Yet in the past 50 years the city’s population has nearly halved. With 40 per cent of its jobs in the public sector and the 8th highest unemployment rate in the country, its future is precarious unless it attracts far more businesses, and develops the skills and infrastructure to support them.
Liverpool Democracy Commission
A decade ago the Liverpool Democracy Commission, including David Alton and Bishop of Liverpool James Jones, recommended an elected mayor to “help transform the city’s image and external profile” and its “sustained failure of leadership”. The city’s local politicians – and there are a lot of them, with 90 members of the city council – ignored the report.
Both Labour’s Joe Anderson, Leader of the Council, and Warren Bradley, Lib Dem leader, will campaign against a Mayor in next May’s referendum. Of the political parties on the council, only the Greens support the proposal.
The city’s business and voluntary sectors are ambivalent. Jon Tonge, professor of politics at Liverpool university, says it all depends who is Mayor. “Liverpool needs a stronger national and international profile, but it certainly doesn’t need a return to strident ‘boss politics’”.
The mayor for Liverpool campaign
There is nonetheless a vocal campaign for a Mayor. Liam Fogarty, Director of ‘A Mayor of Liverpool’ and former director of the city’s BBC radio station, says the city is “only ever a headline away from the next crisis,” pointing to the recent fiasco over the proposed new stadium for Everton, where Liverpool and neighbouring Knowsley council could not agree on this vital project, which then collapsed.
He argues an elected Mayor, with a popular mandate and a plan for the future, could overcome “the infighting and incompetence, low election turnouts and low expectations” which bedevil the city.
The Merseyside question
Nor are political leaders as united against a Mayor as it first appears. They all support stronger strategic partnerships across Merseyside to promote economic regeneration and transport and infrastructure planning.
More than 90 per cent of Merseyside’s population live and work in the region, which by geography and transport is largely self-contained.
If a Mayor for Merseyside were on offer, with strategic powers and control of policing, there would be more support. Jack Stopforth, chief executive of the chamber of commerce, views the abolition of Merseyside county council in the 1980s as a big mistake.
The question is whether a Mayor of Liverpool would promote the region as well as the city, and whether this could be a step on the way to the creation of a city-region authority as in Greater London.
But don’t dare say that Liverpool could have something to learn from Boris and London. I made that mistake in one interview. Immediate outrage. Never again.
Of all the cities I have visited so far, Newcastle is the least enthusiastic about reforming its system of government. Labour and the Lib Dems dominate the city council and I could not identify a single councillor or MP from either party in favour of the mayoral proposition.
Newcastle has form on the subject of city bosses. People still talk about T Dan Smith, the dictatorial Labour leader of the city in the 1960s, who had grand visions of Newcastle as the “Brasilia of the North” and “the outstanding provincial city in the country” but ended up in jail for conspiracy and corruption.
T Dan Smith’s ghost stalks the city’s breathtaking Scandinavian-style civic centre, a monument to his vision but equally a reminder that power can corrupt very badly indeed.
Recent experience of elected mayors elsewhere in the north-east has also put local politicians off the idea. Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and neighbouring North Tyneside all have mayors. Their record is fairly positive, but two of the three won as anti-party candidates (ex-police chief Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough and Stuart ‘the monkey’ Drummond, ex mascot of Hartlepool FC), while in North Tyneside there is Tory Mayor confronting a Labour council. None of which is endearing to Newcastle’s Labour and Lib Dem leaders.
In the last twenty years Newcastle city centre – and neighbouring Gateshead, whose Sage music centre dominates the view across the Tyne – has undergone a cultural renaissance. Yet the city and the region face immense economic and employment challenges. Andy Sugden, policy director at the North East Chamber of Commerce, points out that there is only one FTSE company – also called Sage – headquartered within 100 miles of Newcastle, and Sage’s new chief executive has chosen to locate himself in Paris.
Effective regional leadership
While an elected Mayor of Newcastle has few supporters, everyone stresses the need for stronger regional strategic leadership, to plan infrastructure and transport and boost regeneration. A new “city region” elected authority might provide for this, as in London, if it covered the travel-to-work area and avoided the charges of red tape and waste which bedevilled the failed campaign for a north-east regional assembly a decade ago.
However, even agreeing new arrangements to replace One North East, the regional development agency abolished by the coalition last year, has proved a nightmare. No consensus could be found for maintaining a single Local Economic Partnership (LEP) for the region. After months of haggling, Newcastle became part of a LEP embracing the five urban councils of Tyne and Wear, plus Northumberland and Durham.
But the main topic of conversation in my discussions with political and business leaders was the inability even to agree an interim chair of the LEP. Paul Walker, the former chief executive of Sage, was proposed to become the chair, but his appointment is being blocked by two of the constituent councils and the LEP remains rudderless and leaderless.
With Newcastle accounting for only a fifth of the population even within Tyne and Wear, the city has proved unable to project effective regional leadership, and it is hard to see how an elected “city region” could develop, however imperative the need for one.
The situation is neatly symbolised by the opening of the second Tyne road tunnel, which takes place today. The tunnel itself is the fruit of a long campaign to overcome a critical transport and communications bottleneck.
But the A19, from the mouth of the new tunnel, has not been upgraded, because regional agreement could not be reached on the project costs. So congestion is likely to remain debilitating, and no-one has a plan to overcome it any time soon. Unless Alan Shearer takes up the cause.
Leeds has more councillors over the age of 80 than under the age of 35. Not that it is short of councillors. It has 99 in all, only one member fewer than the Senate of the United States.
No-one I met in the city thought that the very great size and average age of the council was a mark in its favour. Apart from the councillors I met, everyone was supportive or open-minded about the benefits of a mayor if they could deal with what Duncan McCargo, professor of politics at Leeds university, called the “shocking lack of strategy and leadership on the council for the last 20 years and the deep social divisions which separate the affluent north-west of the city from the large poor council estates of the south and east.”
A city doing well
Leeds is the financial capital of the north and one of the fastest growing cities in the country. First Direct, GE Capital, Alliance and Leicester and Direct Line are all based in the city.
In the constant trans-Pennine rivalry for private sector jobs, the city has done well. But in terms of public institutions and regeneration, the contrast is far less favourable. A survey by the Chamber of Commerce of its members shows strong support for a mayor.
“We want to see someone in charge with a national profile who can get things done, like Ken and Boris in London,” says Gary Williamson, the Chamber’s chief executive.
Instead the city has had not just a hung council for the last six years, but for most of the time a council leadership changing between Tory and Lib Dem coalition partners every six months. The equivalent of Cameron and Clegg alternating in No 10 twice a year.
A litany of failures is forthcoming. Leeds is still without a tram or rapid transit system, when most other large cities in the Midlands and the North now have one.
“Manchester’s metro keeps being extended, while our plan was downgraded from to a tram to a trolleybus, and even that is now in doubt,” says one councillor, but without much idea how even the trolleybus is going to be achieved.
The lack of a concert hall, the long-term closure of the city museum, the large number of seriously underperforming schools – so the list goes on.
However, there is little sign yet of political support for a mayor. Keith Wakefield now leads a Labour administration, and is confident of winning an overall majority in this May’s elections, which would give greater stability.
He has just carried through a massive cuts budget with a fair degree of cross-party consensus. There is also a new and popular council chief executive in Tom Riordan, the former chief executive of the recently abolished regional development agency Yorkshire Forward.
A short-distance away, Bradford also has the opportunity of electing its own mayor, but its council is viewed even more harshly for its poor record over nearly 20 years of being hung with weak political leadership.
But here too there is a popular and highly regarded council chief executive. Tony Reeves has been in the job for four years, and is described by one university leader as “the glue which holds a weak and divided council together, to get anything done at all.”
Bradford’s economic situation is grimmer than Leeds, with less of its neighbour’s success in attracting private sector employers to replace the now largely vanished wool trade. And the area covered by the city council is even more divided than Leeds socially.
It extends from a city of wide ethnic diversity, with 40 per cent of the population in the bottom tenth of national income earners, to embrace also the prosperous towns of Ilkley and Keighley, some of whose councillors want to declare independence from the metropolitan district entirely.
Tony Reeves is credited with much of the city’s recent progress with regeneration – and for forging consensus in dealing with a cuts crisis as serious as in Leeds. But therein lies a serious problem with mayoral model put forward by Eric Pickles. This would oblige any city voting for a mayor to abolish its chief executive, whether it wants to or not.
They talk about Eric Pickles a lot in Bradford. He made his name there as leader of the city council twenty years ago. Weakness and invisibility weren’t his trademarks.
The Full Monty, the 1997 comic hit about a group of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers, leaves outsiders with three misleading long-term impressions about the city – that steelmaking died; that low value jobs were the only replacement; and that the better-off largely fled the city.
None is true. Advanced steel manufacturing is alive and flourishing in Sheffield; it just doesn’t employ the numbers it used to. The city now has a diversified industrial and professional employment base – ranging from the now celebrated Sheffield Forgemasters to a Boeing research centre and a new Rolls Royce research and manufacturing centre, two highly successful universities, major health and sports employers, and a digital business centre.
As for the better-off, Nick Clegg’s Hallam constituency is one of the richest outside the south east of England, with amenities extending well beyond a rejuvenated city centre. An east-west divide largely separates richer from poorer in Sheffield – but the better-off still live and work in the city. As one business leader puts it, “the Pennines limit the scope for the middle and professional classes to flee, as they did in large numbers from Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and Birmingham.”
Sheffield’s economy is therefore in reasonable shape, with a degree of optimism among business leaders despite the likely impact of public sector cuts. There is little of the sense of urgent civic crisis which, in other cities I have visited, is driving support for a mayor to make up for weak strategic leadership and vision.
Add to this the strong ebullient character of the Lib Dem leader of the City Council, Paul Scriven – “who acts rather like a Mayor already”, says Phil Jones, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam university – and the perceived disaster of an elected mayor 18 miles down the road in Doncaster, and the current lack of enthusiasm in the city for an elected mayor is not hard to fathom.
Jeremy Clifford, acting editor of the Sheffield Star, thought views might change if David Blunkett wanted the job. The popular former Home Secretary looks back on his leadership of the city council with fierce pride, but he has no desire to return to the Town Hall and gives an unambiguous “no” when asked.
This remains “no” when pressed on the potentially great power and impact of the mayoral office. Julie Dore, the new Labour leader on the city council – who is only a few seats short of unseating Paul Scriven – also has no desire to be Mayor, believing that the mayoral model concentrates too much power in one person. A phone-in I did with BBC Radio Sheffield failed to arouse much enthusiasm, for or against a Mayor.
It is hard to exaggerate the impact of Doncaster in discrediting the mayoral idea in Sheffield. Whereas in Birmingham, Coventry and Bristol – all far closer to London – business and media leaders, and even some local politicians, compare their civic leadership unfavourably to Boris and Ken in London, all the comparisons made in Sheffield are with Doncaster, which now has a its second maverick mayor running.
Doncaster council today started the process for removing their mayor, which could lead to a referendum seeking abolition of the mayor on the same day in May 2012 when Sheffield votes on whether to introduce one.
By contrast, another significant mayoral development this week is the resignation of Leicester’s senior Labour MP Sir Peter Soulsby to stand in the first mayoral election in the city. This will take place this May following Leicester council’s decision to move in the opposite direction to Doncaster and embrace a mayor.
The train from Sheffield to London stops at Leicester, and there will be keen interest among other cities in the Midlands and north if the Leicester mayor makes a notable difference. But for the moment, it is Doncaster not Leicester which calls the mayoral shots in Sheffield.
Manchester boasts the greatest concentration of students west of Moscow. ‘The Corridor’, a vibrant university and business district surrounding Oxford Road in the city centre, is home to:
A £2.5bn investment and regeneration plan for the entire zone – including the redevelopment of the old Eye Hospital into incubator space for new bio-tech businesses – is being driven forward by a novel partnership company embracing the city council, the universities and local employers. The aim is to boost the area’s employment to 77,000.
Dynamic and stable
This initiative is typical of the dynamism of Manchester city council. In stark contrast to the position in most of the other cities I have visited, there is unstinting praise for the council leadership from the city business, voluntary and media leaders. Stability, competence, pragmatism, vision – one or all are mentioned wherever you go.
Manchester has big challenges. Low skill levels, unemployment and deprivation are all serious. Public sector cuts will bite hard. But the city and its neighbours have a string of regeneration and employment successes to match.
Underpinning it all is the highly successful and durable double act between the city’s two knights, council leader Sir Richard Leese and chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein. Leese has been leader for 15 years, and was deputy leader for six years before that. Bernstein has been in post for 13 years, and spent practically his whole previous career at Manchester council, starting as a junior clerk.
It is very different from the “here-today, gone-tomorrow” chief executives who characterise so much of local government, and the weak and unstable political leadership which I found in some other cities, notably Bristol and Bradford.
The two knights
I can testify to the Leese/Bernstein partnership from my time as Transport Secretary and Schools minister. No city lobbied more strongly or effectively for high-speed rail and local transport improvements than Manchester. The city now has the best tram system in Britain, and it is being radically extended.
The city also embraced the academies programme to replace failing schools. The two knights personally engaged prominent Manchester employers – including Manchester airport, the children’s hospital, BT and the Co-op – to sponsor and manage a new generation of ‘made in Manchester’ academies.
Stability can breed inertia and complacency. There is little sign of it in Manchester. Rod Coombes, pro vice-chancellor of Manchester university, reels off a list of projects done or planned in partnership with the city council.
“I am in and out of Howard Bernstein’s office the whole time. Manchester’s universities would not be the force they are without this close partnership,” he says. “The same would be said by the two football clubs and most of the city’s big businesses.”
Manchester city council’s boundaries are tightly drawn, so partnership working with the nine other authorities which make up Greater Manchester is essential. This, too, is a success by comparison with England’s other regional conurbations.
Last week Greater Manchester secured parliamentary powers to become a “combined authority” – in effect, an indirectly elected regional authority able to take on strategic powers over transport and economic development.
To have secured agreement from all ten authorities, with their distinct agendas and political make-up, was another coup. The two knights achieved it by subtle diplomacy. The chair of the combined authority is Peter Smith, the leader of Wigan, with Manchester providing the back-up support.
The Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership works to the same boundaries as the combined authority. So does the police authority. When the first Police and Crime Commissioner is elected next year, the combined authority will gain an elected dimension. This could be the first step towards a broader democratic personality for Greater Manchester, which lost its elected metropolitan authority in 1986.
A second city in all but name?
“Manchester now sees itself as England’s second city in all but name,” says Clive Memmott, chief executive of the chamber of commerce. “The combined authority needs to focus on infrastructure, skills and bridging the north-south divide within Greater Manchester. It has our full support.”
If the combined authority succeeds, an elected mayor might ultimately make sense for Greater Manchester. But there is little support for a mayor for the city of Manchester alone. Few want to disrupt or shorten the reign of the two knights.
Without much national fanfare, Leicester will tomorrow become the largest city in England outside London to elect a mayor to run its affairs. In doing so, it could pave the way for Birmingham and other major cities outside the capital to follow suit in short order.
Leicester’s council voted a few months ago to change to the mayoral system. This short-circuited a process which in Birmingham and 10 other major cities is requiring referendums. These will be held in May 2012, on whether to make a similar change in defiance of the wishes of the existing elected councils, which are opposed to it.
The Leicester field
The hot favourite to become Mayor is Labour’s Sir Peter Soulsby, one of the city’s MPs and a previous leader of the Council. Peter Soulsby’s decision to leave Westminster – a by-election for his Leicester South seat is also being held tomorrow – is another first: the first Mayor of a town or city outside London who is a former MP for the locality in question.
Neither regretted the move and other MPs are watching closely. Bob Ainsworth, the former Defence Secretary, has already said that he would leave his Coventry seat to contest the mayoralty of his city if the post is created in next year’s referendum.
The mayoral election has grabbed the attention of Leicester voters far more than their parliamentary by-election let alone the AV referendum (which was not mentioned by anyone when we visited on Monday.)
There are 11 candidates. These include a highly credible independent in the shape of Rick Moore, president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and the city’s longest-serving JP, who a local poll puts in second place.
The candidates have done battle in a dozen hustings meetings. The largest, organised by De Montfort University – named after Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, who called England’s first directly elected Parliament in his battle against Henry III – was packed and required an overflow meeting, a rarity for a local election hustings event.
The second most powerful local government figure in England
By the end of this week the Mayor of Leicester will be arguably the most powerful local government figure in England after Boris Johnson. The Guardian recently ran an editorial entitled Elected Mayors: Where Leicester Leads.
“Will the prospect of being a hands-on mayor soon confer more political clout than the uncertain chance of a cabinet seat?” the paper asked.