Originally published in The Times
Can you name the leaders of Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds city councils, three of the largest cities in England? No? You are in good company. When I asked the question at a conference of local authority chief executives, not even they could name all three.
But have you met anyone who doesn’t recognise Boris Johnson? Or who couldn’t tell you the two main candidates battling to be Mayor of London this May?
That, in a nutshell, is the case for mayors. In a democracy, it is hard to wield power incognito and impossible to be accountable incognito. The weakness of local government in England is not something cultural and unchangeable: it is largely a result of weak mandates. In most other democracies, cities are run by elected mayors with strong mandates. Of England’s major cities, only London is so. Surprise, surprise: in few cities outside London — and only there since the mayoralty was created 12 years ago — is there a perception of strong, can-do city leadership.
In some cities, chronic instability is a way of life. Bristol has had seven changes of leader in the past decade and the council is perennially “hung” in terms of party representation.
By contrast, mayors are elected for a fixed four-year term.
Look at the records of Ken and Boris. The congestion charge; a dramatic improvement in bus and Tube services; the £16 billion Crossrail scheme; the Boris bikes — and that is just in transport.
Every city needs a mayor of similar clout, able to knock heads together across the public, private and voluntary sectors and to “sell” their cities at home and abroad.
On May 11, prominent cities outside of London hold referendums on whether to introduce elected mayors.
Doncaster and Stoke-on-Trent are cited in the case against mayors. Both councils were dysfunctional, and mayors have not been panaceas. But in 13 other smaller authorities with mayors for a reasonable period the record has been positive.
The London boroughs of Hackney, Newham and Lewisham have had successful mayors, each re-elected three times. Outside London, three of the four mayoral incumbents were re-elected last year, so the public generally likes what it sees.
Elected mayors are an idea whose time is coming. And the sooner the better, for the good of England’s regional cities and economies.