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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