It takes a mayor to lead a city, says Liam Fogarty

Londoners electing a Mayor seems like the most natural thing in the world. Hard now to imagine that it was once seen as a radical, even dangerous, innovation.

Yet the simple principle that a city should have directly accountable, visible leadership is being applied in just a handful of English cities and towns.

Three-term Mayors Dorothy Thornhill (Liberal Democrat, Watford)) and Stuart Drummond (Independent, Hartlepool) have emerged as popular local champions. London borough Mayors like Jules Pipe in Hackney and Lewisham’s Sir Steve Bullock can point to better services, greater public engagement and real strategic leadership as their mayoral dividend. The mayoralty of Greater London has become one of the most high-profile posts in British politics.

But supporters of the status quo point to places like Stoke-on-Trent, which has dropped its mayoral system, and dysfunctional Doncaster as evidence that Mayors aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Since 2001 voters in two dozen other local authorities have rejected the notion of an elected Mayor in local referendums. In cities like Liverpool and Birmingham local petitioners – me included – tried and failed to trigger referendums.

Now David Cameron is advancing plans to give England’s 12 biggest cities the opportunity to elect executive Mayors. He’s wants them to be “powerful local politicians …who have real clout to drive projects through.”

New Communities & Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles is promising more consultation. If new elected Mayors in Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds are to get London-style powers over planning, transport and even policing, new legislation would be needed. It would also require a re-organisation of local government structures and possibly boundaries. That could be a bruising – and expensive – process.

But if ministers want our cities to be more democratic, prosperous and creative places they should stick to their guns and embrace a system that works for hundreds of successful cities all over the world.

The task of leading and running a great city cannot be left to anonymous officers, unelected quangos and toothless, if well-intentioned, ward councillors. Currently, we have a system which encourages local politicians to dodge responsibility, not to take it.

And visibility? Seven out-of-ten Liverpudlians can’t name one of their 90 local councillors.

More people in my city can recognise Boris Johnson than can identify the current city council leader. Ask  “who’s in charge round here?” and you cannot get a straight answer.

Add in the baffling “election-by-thirds” system and you have a culture that promotes short-termism and a seat-of-the-pants approach to decision-making.

If the coalition’s “new politics” mantra is to mean anything, it has to apply to town halls as well as Whitehall.

Having a Mayor with a city-wide mandate puts voters back in charge. Mayors look outwards towards the electorate, not over their shoulders at backbench colleagues or powerful officers. Mayoral politics will also draw in new candidates from non-political backgrounds. The best city mayors will be “civic entrepreneurs,” fierce salespeople for their cities with the scope to innovate and inspire.

A council leader can only lead a council. It takes a Mayor to lead a city.

Liam Fogarty is chair of

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3 Responses to “It takes a mayor to lead a city, says Liam Fogarty”

  1. Mike Killingworth says:

    It takes a Mayor to lead a city? Obviously not a view shared by those communities which decided to get rid of the post.

    Whilst it’s true that Liverpool has been poorly served by both Labour and Liberal Democrat Councils, I don’t suppose that either of them thought for one moment that they were adequately funded – in Byrne’s dream-world you elect a Mayor and hey presto! All financial problems disappear.

    Why Byrne wants more Mayors is of course because he wants to make politics more expensive. He wants to exclude ordinary working-class people and in so doing make sure that what he regards as the Dracula of socialism never again rears its head in England’s green and pleasant.

    For a Labour MP to praise the proposals of a (mostly) Tory government is the clearest demonstration we could wish for of the logical outcome of NuLab – three, four or (counting the SNP) even five centre-right parties all offering the same policies, give or take. All in fear and dread of the suburban loathing of the poor and the non-white. All prostrated before the Great Shibboleth, “Market Forces”, and their concomitant globalisation of the labour market which has reduced the market value of semi-skilled work to £1.50 and even reduced the price of top-level management consultancy by 75% (not that I weep at that). All believing that the terms of political debate should be set by the proprietors and editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail.

    One thing this site might usefully do is identify how many Labour MPs are even more to the right than Byrne. Just so as we know. And can plan accordingly.

  2. That’s all very interesting Mike, but Liam Byrne didn’t write that. Liam Fogarty did. In the same way that Liam Byrne didn’t use to be in Oasis.

    I can see the argument for mayors, but do you really want such a presidential system? You look at some of the characters in local politics and their petty local vendettas and you have to wonder what they’d do if you gave them free rein to set the strategic section of a city.

    London needs a mayor, because London is a loose conglomeration of 32 unitary authorities that need to work together. Liverpool, in contrast, is just one authority. Now I could see an argument for a Mayor of Merseyside, for example, but it has to be accepted that London is different because it’s an order of magnitude larger than anywhere else.

  3. Mike Killingworth says:

    Whoops! My apologies to both Liams.

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