23 Jun 2014

Would elected mayors ‘put the rockets’ on northern cities?

So George Osborne has returned today to that old favourite – elected mayors.  A Heseltine old favourite, to be precise, developed during Hezza’s 1986-1990 period in the political wilderness during the late Thatcher government.


“A mayor for Greater Manchester,” the chancellor suggested this morning.  “A mayor for Leeds. With powers similar to the mayor of London.”

Michael Heseltine was never able to pursue his policy in government.  He tried to push the idea through while serving as environment secretary under John Major from 1990-92, but couldn’t find a single ally in cabinet.  So it was left to Labour to steal the policy, and it was the Blair government which introduced the post of elected mayor of London in 2000.

Then people were allowed to hold referendums in all sorts of other places, and we’ve now got 17 mayors sprinkled across England – Middlesbrough, Leicester, Doncaster, for example, and various London boroughs.  Hartlepool and Stoke-on-Trent had mayors too for a while, but then had a second referendum and decided to scrap the idea.

Under this coalition, ministers forced 11 other of the biggest English cities to hold referendums on whether they wanted elected mayors too. And most places said no. Only Bristol agreed to the idea, and then elected the independent George Ferguson to the post  – a flamboyant businessman who boasts of having 43 pairs of red trousers.

But Birmingham, where two Labour MPs and an ex-MP were ready to run, said no by 58 per cent to 42 per cent.  So did Manchester, albeit by a closer margin – 46.8 per cent to 53.2 per cent.  Liverpool agreed to have a mayor, but not through a referendum of the public, but controversially  via the back-door route of making the decision through the Labour-dominated city council. And the council leader, Joe Anderson, was duly elected to the post.

This left the government’s elected mayors policy in a bit of a mess. Councils can still hold referendums on bringing in elected mayors – and Copeland in Cumbria has just done so – but the policy has fizzled out a bit.

This is all very disappointing to those like George Osborne and Michael Heseltine who see elected mayors as putting the rockets on urban and regional economies. And Osborne today expressed the hope that northern cities will think again and bring in their local equivalents to Boris Johnson.

There are various snags with this. First, as Osborne acknowledged in his speech this morning, the biggest northern city, Manchester, is working extremely well without an elected mayor. The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese – an elected councillor – has been in post since 1996, and before him was the equally successful Graham Stringer (leader from 1984 to 1996), who is now a very truculent Labour MP.  But Manchester’s success as a council owes as much to its non-party chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein (in post since 1998), as Osborne also acknowledged today.

In the run-up to their city’s mayoral referendum in 2012, Bernstein and Leese argued that an elected mayor was “not suitable” to Manchester and that things worked perfectly well without one.  In short, they were arguing “If it aint broke, why fix it?”  In his speech today Osborne speaks no longer of a mayor for the city of Manchester, but for Greater Manchester, the area which comprises the city and nine surrounding local council areas, not all of which are Labour.  (Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Sean Anstee, a 26-year-old Conservative who has just taken over as leader of Trafford Council.)

But Leese and Bernstein, and many other council leaders from across Greater Manchester, would argue that they have already developed huge strategic cooperation in recent years through a whole range of multi-council bodies in Greater Manchester, not least the LEP, the Local Enterprise Partnership, which brings together people from councils, businesses and other bodies in the county, such as the universities.

A poll for the Manchester Evening News taken at the time of the 2012 referendum suggested that a majority of voters in Greater Manchester would, in fact, favour an elected mayor for the whole county, but it’s not clear whether Osborne has shifted emphasis to say that in future elected mayors should be concentrated upon much larger, strategic areas, compared with the small geographic units to which they have largely been confined until now.  For at the same time he mentioned “Greater Manchester” in today’s speech, he also spoke of Leeds.  Yet Leeds is just one council area in the much greater county of West Yorkshire , which covers Bradford, Wakefield, Kirklees (Huddersfield etc) and Calderdale (Halifax etc).

One problem for the Conservatives on this issue is that they have a history of changes and U-turns, and running through that history is Michael Heseltine (or whom I once wrote an independent biography).  Heseltine was a minister in the old department of the environment during the 1970-74 Heath government when the environment secretary Peter Walker pushed through a very controversial reorganisation of local government.

That led to the estbalishment of new metropolitan county councils for Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire, as well as Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, South Yorkshire and the West Midlands. And Heseltine was heavily involved in persuading local Conservatives that these new counties based on the great conurbations were a great idea (though he and Walker were forced to shed the more rural, Tory-voting fringes from the original metropolitan county maps).  It was envisaged that these councils would carry out the kind of strategic planning and decision-making which Heseltine and Osborne now hope elected mayors might do instead.  But then in 1986, after just 12 years’ existence, the mets were abolished by the Thatcher government.

And Michael Heseltine, having served his first stint as environment secretary from 1979-83, was among those arguing strongest for abolition, on the strength of his experience as “Minister for Merseyside” after the 1981 Toxteth riots.  Local leaders in Liverpool and Knowsley had persuaded him that the new higher tier of elected councillors was a waste of money, and did nothing to promote strategic planning across Merseyside, or economic regeneration.

Heseltine’s next stop was elected mayors – the idea that a powerful local personality, backing with a mandate in an election, might be able to bang heads together, promote big projects and ideas, and force through  the kind of change that’s never really encouraged by the traditional model of local government, conducted through networks of committees.

His ideal was Joseph Chamberlain, the mayor who transformed late nineteenth century Birmingham, and many mayors of the great American cities.  The danger, however, is that a populist, personality city mayor, can sometimes turn out to be a dodgy character, such as Marion Barry In Washington, or Rob Ford in Toronto.  If Newcastle-on-Tyne had had an elected mayor in the 1960s it would no doubt have been the charismatic but corrupt T Dan Smith.  In the 1980s Liverpool might well have elected Derek Hatton.

It will be interesting to see how the mayoral policy now develops.  Would a post-2015 Conservative government force cities to hold a round of second referendums?  Presumably not, as allowing voters to have a second go might prove a very dangerous precedent if Scotland votes no to independence this autumn.  Or will they enforce referendums in much wider areas than before, such as Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire?  More likely is that they will simply let local politicians come round to the idea themselves, encouraged by the promise of more devolved powers together with generous financial incentives (as happened with Liverpool’s back-door decision to go for an elected mayor in 2012)?  George Osborne seems unclear at this stage, and simply wants to have a serious “conversation” about the issue.

Promoting cities and city government is one of the most interesting areas of domestic and economic policy right now.  Many believe that in the 21st century and beyond strong cities may come to rival nation states as economic powerhouses, and we may even see the re-emergence of independent city states.   But in the case of the UK, or England, it’s still not clear that Michael Heseltine and George Osborne have found the right formula after more than 40 years of trying (in Hezza’s case).

And even if they have found the answer, are they willing to set another set of elected politicians on voters who don’t want them, and don’t feel they need them?

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6 reader comments

  1. Philip says:

    It strikes me that the biggest problem with our politics is the remoteness of the political class (mostly) and the distance between ordinary citizens and where decisions are taken. I don’t see how elected mayors in large conurbations will affect this. Local government has been largely emasculated, its sources of independent funding cut back & constrained, while much of its spending is equally constrained by central government. No wonder so few people vote in local elections.
    The first priority should be to give local authorities a substantially larger slice of their own resources & an ability to decide on local tax rates as well on what services they should be providing with what degree of priority. And bring back the Audit Commission to keep them in line….and Standards Committees.

  2. David Thorpe says:

    Your sideways swipe at George Ferguson is entirely unjustified. Allow me to correct you. Is it a coincidence that Bristol, voted top UK city by the sunday times, is also 1 of UK’s greenest? Bristol recently won the Sunday Times list as the best UK city to living in, citing its “great shopping, great scenery and great social scene”.

    Last autumn it won a similar survey managed by the online consumer website MoneySuperMarket for being the most “liveable” city in Britain, closely followed by Edinburgh, Cardiff, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, London and Belfast.

    Bristol also happens to be one of the greenest cities in the UK and next year will be the European Green Capital; is that a coincidence? I don’t think so.

    Bristol is the place where the mayor is paid in “Bristol pounds” an alternative currency. To support it in the privileged role of being the 2015 European Green Capital it is to receive £7 million of additional funding from the Treasury. http://bristolgreencapital.org/latest/2014/04/7-million-to-support-bristol-as-europes-green-capital-2015/

    Bristol’s mayor, George Ferguson, is a visionary environmentalist and urbanist, an architect and founding member of the British sustainable transport charity Sustrans.

    He is also a pioneer of regeneration, known for regenerating the Bedminster area of South Bristol in the 1990s centred around his purchase and conversion of the old, disused Imperial Tobacco building, now renowned as the Tobacco Factory, a mixed-use project that includes a theatre, cafe, restaurant and creative industry hub which has been a focus for the regeneration of the entire area. He repeated this success with the Bristol Beer Factory, which he revived and turned into a thriving beer brewing business that has won numerous national awards. It now includes a theatre and a bakery.

    Elected mayor in November 2012 running as an independent Ferguson almost immediately ran a city wide election for the youth community to elect two youth mayors to make young people feel connected to local government. Ferguson understands modern cities and how regeneration of high streets must happen alongside the move to online shopping habits, buy keeping it local and using sustainable transport. Business rates must be set in alignment with these policies.

    Three months ago he and the leaders of the three neighbouring authorities that form the West of England signed a ‘City Deal’ with central Government allowing Bristol to retain income from business rates and decide how the money should be spent. (Previously the Government retained business rates and distributed them nationally.

    He uses the intelligence of Bristol crowds to devise policies that will work. A year after winning office he launched ‘George’s Ideas Lab’, a website that asks Bristol citizens to submit ideas for improving the city. Bristol has also long been the home of the UK’s Environment Agency and a Centre for Sustainable Energy, which gives it a green-minded skills base. As an administration, the city has an eco-management and audit scheme in place to ensure its environmental performance. In 2012, the Council won the EU EMAS Award for water management.

    Its energy policy commits it to reduce energy use by 20% by 2020 and source renewable energy for 20% of its power needs by that date. This will rise to 60% by 2050. It is sponsoring numerous projects to improve the energy efficiency of its building stock, to source renewable electricity, and to implement district heating schemes using combined heat and power. It hosts a community-owned energy cooperative. One of the consultants advising the council on greening the city is Herbert Girardet, author of numerous books on sustainable cities.

    Of course, Bristol benefits from a fine location: it’s in the south west and so receives good sunshine, it is near to the sea and the Severn estuary, as well as near to wealthy areas such as the Cotswolds and by the gateway to south Wales.

    But it faces problems of social inequality as well: it’s not long since the inner-city riots, and housing can be very expensive. It also expects, because of its popularity, to grow rapidly in the next 20 years and the systems being put in place now will have to accommodate this projected growth.

    Unsurprisingly, then, it has a Smart City Program. Connecting Bristol – the city’s digital partnership – was established in 2006 and leads the city’s work on next generation broadband infrastructure, smart city, open data, green ICT, and digital inclusion. The Program is benefiting from a European Commission of over £300,000 for two projects, and a Green Digital Charter Award to its Futures Team, (which includes members of the City Council, the city’s universities, businesses and community partners). The team plans to use smart technologies to develop the city’s digital infrastructure to meet the city’s target to reduce CO2 emissions as well as wider social and economic targets.

    The city is also one of four UK Future City Demonstrators and benefits from further funding from the UK Government’s Technology Strategy Board, which fosters technological innovation. This is all part of Bristol’s aim to be in the top 20 European cities by 2020 by creating a world-class and inclusive green-digital economy.

    The City Council itself owns and manages a £9 million city fibre network. Through ‘Gigabit Bristol’, which received £11 million UK Super Connected Cities funding, they are deploying a high-speed broadband test-bed, citywide Wi-Fi network and experimental radio frequency network.

    So, all of this is going on behind the scenes. This is what it takes to become a great city. And what can the Sunday Time say about it? “Great shopping, great scenery and great social scene”. And what do you say? He owns 43 pairs of red trousers. Pathetic.

    That’s the tip of the iceberg. That’s what journalists and the general public or visitor might see. The vision and hard work it takes to create this reality, I hope you can now see, is about embracing and uniting green capitalism with urbanism, sustainability, democracy, social inclusion, localism and technology. Bristol every bit deserves its leadership role and its recognition.

    1. Keith Hallam says:

      …While at the same time increasingly taking ever more power into his own hands, ignoring the will of the people and the councillors, casting scorn and derision upon any form of scrutiny of his actions, employing ever more high-salary directors of this-and-that, handing out assistant-to-the-assistant titles and stipends left, right and centre, etc, etc, etc – all while making no stand against central government imposed cuts and choosing to spend taxpayers money on slides and Sundays rather than the needy of this city. And finally he has forced me to actually agree with just about every word a LibDem wrote recently:


    2. CJ says:

      Ask the residents of Avonmouth about Ferguson’s green policies.

      Any swipe at Ferguson is entirely justified when you look at the things he’s been up to since his ‘landslide’ victory in the polls. There’s almost as many people signed the petition for a vote of no confidence in him as voted for him in the first place! But then after he goes against what was in his own manifesto (and everything else a quick search uncovers) that’s not really surprising…

  3. John Wilson says:

    Restore LOCAL democracy so that local politicians have powers to shape their localities and the electorate might be interested in local politics. The present system is highly centralised and central government interference knows no bounds. The only thing that is decentralused is the rhetoric which is used to obscure the real agenda of dismantling local public services and for what remains is handed over to the private sector who make donations to political parties on exchange for govt contracts. A

  4. Robert Taggart says:

    More likely to put a rocket UNDER these cities !…

    There be far too many local councils in England and far more too many local councillors.
    Much of England still suffers from the nonsense of two tiers of local government (County + District / City / Borough).
    Unitary Councils only should be the aim – and that may well mean subsuming some already well established councils.
    The starting point would be the Counties – those would be the most efficient choice for most places.
    The larger urban areas (100K + population ?) would have their own District Council.
    Ergo – Norfolk minus Norwich, Wiltshire minus Swindon…
    Such councils would be elected only once every five years – the years XX01 and XX06 are currently unspoken for – across the country (England).
    Only one councillor would be elected per seat – by some proportional means.

    Just a thought… if we are to have more elected Mayors for the urban councils – how about elected Sheriffs for the County Councils ? !

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