01 September 2011

If we get the mayoral offer right, we can transform the way our cities are governed.

Over the last year I have travelled around England’s greatest cities talking to more than sixty five business and voluntary sector leaders, local authority chief executives, journalists and councillors. The picture of city governance I have bought back is decidedly mixed; ranging from ambitious and strategic leadership to chaos and stagnation. Everywhere there was room for improvement. This week I sent a letter to Eric Pickles setting out why I support his plan to hold referenda on the introduction of directly elected mayors but proposing amendments that would significantly strengthen the Localism Bill that is currently before Parliament.

There are three main reasons why mayors would drive progress in our cities. First, mayors offer greater visibility and accountability. A poll from the New Local Government Network published in 2004, just 18 months after the first wave of local authority mayors were elected, found that on average 57% of people could identify their mayor, compared to only 25% who could identify their leader. Piles of correspondence addressed directly to city mayors are testimony to the fact that the electorate in mayoral authorities know who they should go to when they have a grievance or concern.

Second, mayors can provide stronger city-wide leadership. Mayors are elected by voters across the city and receive many more votes than for the average council leader. This gives mayors the mandate they need to convene all those who can contribute to a city’s development - both within and outside the council. Nowhere is this more crucial than in relation to the growth. Institute for Government and Centre for Cities research has shown that England’s cities need to rise above ward-level interests (seen at its worst in destructive NIMBYism) to help Britain to recover from recession.

Third, mayors offer greater stability for local government. I was amazed to learn on my visit to Bristol that the city has now had seven leaders in the last ten years: no way to run the capital of the southwest.

Ultimately, it will be the electorate that decides whether to adopt the mayoral model but current drafting of the Localism Bill is not yet configured in a way that allows a fair choice for voters. First, the Government is yet to fully outline what voters will be choosing between. Under the Localism Bill, the Secretary of State can delegate any number of powers to local mayors but this hardly provides certainty. At a minimum, the Localism Bill must state that all city mayors will be given planning powers comparable to those of the Mayor of London, as well as a clear (if not deciding) role in local transport, policing and economic development plans. In every city I went to, the consensus was that a ‘yes’ vote would be more likely if the mayors were given substantial additional powers so failing to prescribe the model more fully biases the vote in favour of those who oppose change.

Second, voters are naturally cautious about change. In my open letter to the Secretary of State, I propose holding the referenda in two waves, with Leeds, Bristol and Birmingham going first in 2012, and the remaining eight in 2013. This would have the advantage of allowing referenda to take place first in largest cities and those with the weakest governance. It is in these cities that the debate on mayors is already most advanced and where the example of London has made most impact. The debate in the other cities is at present less advanced and will benefit from the experience of the earlier referenda.

Third, the Localism Bill does not do enough to reassure voters that there will be appropriate checks and balances on mayoral power. Our visits to the cities where referenda will be held revealed concerns that mayoral government put too much power in the hands of one person. My letter therefore also contains our recommendations on how to strengthen the overview and scrutiny process to ensure the mayor is robustly held to account for their decision by elected councillors.

These changes may seem quite technical but they are immensely important. The coalition government now has what may be a once in a generation opportunity to give real power to our cities. The fact that the Minister for Decentralisation has now become Minister for Cities reflects neatly the importance of these reforms. If the government is to achieve its aim of ‘decentralising Britain’ then their policy on city government will largely determine whether they succeed, or fail.