8th May 2012 Blog
The advance of elected mayors continues apace, despite the negative votes in city referendums last week.
The London mayoral contest dominated May’s local elections. London’s transport, and much else besides, has been transformed for the better by twelve years of the mayoralty. Polls show more Londoners now favour independence for the capital than the abolition of the mayor. The London beacon will continue, city by city, year by year, to keep the mayoral issue alive.
Nine cities voted against mayors last Thursday, so change is not going to happen “big bang.” But four cities – Bristol, Salford, Liverpool and Leicester – have switched to the mayoral system in the past year alone, and Doncaster voted decisively not to abolish its mayor. I would be surprised if most of England’s cities have not switched to the mayoral system within a decade.
However, the message of last Thursday is that this will be a bottom-up not a top-down process. Only in Bristol – a case of chronic council instability, with eight changes of council leader in barely a decade – did voters respond positively to a government-imposed referendum. In all other authorities where the change to a mayor has taken place, this followed the decision of the council itself (as in Liverpool and Leicester) or through a locally-inspired referendum (as in Salford, and earlier in more than a dozen authorities including Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Hackney, Lewisham and Newham.) It is by these avenues that change will take place within existing local authorities in future.
The next big reform issue thrown up by this year’s referendums and police commissioner elections is the creation of “metro mayors” able to take on major strategic and conurbation-wide responsibilities which are currently not under the control of elected local government at all.
Participating in the mayoral referendum campaigns, I found a near consensus – including among councillors opposed to elected mayors for existing city councils – on the case for new “metro mayors” able to take charge of transport, planning and policing across city-regional travel-to-work areas. This is the role of the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority, and the issue can no longer be ducked in other conurbations. Partly this is because of the successful example of London, and partly because police commissioner elections are taking place in November for police authority areas which in the conurbations, headed by the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, largely cover “city regions.” Labour and the Tories now need to decide what to do with the police commissioners, and Labour in particular is not wedded to the status quo as a long term settlement.
It would be a simple reform in the conurbations to convert elected police commissioners into “metro mayors” with responsibility for transport, economic regeneration and strategic planning, as well as policing. Since the police commissioners will already exist, and the extra powers would largely come from devolution downwards from Whitehall, not by taking powers from existing local authorities, I see no particular reason for referendums to create these metro mayors.
Metro mayors are not an esoteric constitutional reform divorced from the bread-and-butter imperatives of the hour. They could play a key role in promoting growth and prosperity in the major conurbations outside London, most of which are languishing badly.
Cities nationwide need to become the engines of growth, as is London in the south-east. Without better infrastructure, better public services, and a far more energetic and strategic approach to planning and economic regeneration, the path out of austerity will be slower and far less assured.
So for me the lesson of last Thursday is: leave councils and their electorates to decide if and when they want mayors in place of their existing local authority leaders, and concentrate on a workable plan, with real new powers focused on growth, for “metro mayors” in England’s major conurbations outside London.