Why the failure to elect regional mayors is bad for business.

The coalition's regional policies have been quietly disastrous.

Amidst the headlines reporting the Coalition’s trouncing in the local elections, a significant policy aspect has gone less commented upon: the almost total failure of the introduction of directly elected mayors. On Thursday nine out of ten councils voted against the plan to install mayors in major cities, with just Bristol agreeing to the idea.

For David Cameron, who talked about constituting a “cabinet of mayors”, it is a personal failure, reminiscent of John Prescott’s ill-fated (and much-mocked by the Tories) experiment with regional government. But this is also a failure for the business community.

The introduction of powerful mayors was supposed to be a stimulus for economic development outside London. The mandate from a popular mayor, it was argued, would be able to aggregate powers and responsibilities in the same way that the London mayor has since 2000. When Livingstone was first elected in the capital, the role was little more than a figurehead. However assiduous lobbying by him and his successor Boris Johnson means the role, contrary to popular opinion, now controls multi-billion-pound budgets and huge responsibilities for transport, policing, housing, skills training and planning.

The idea of similarly powerful figures for major cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds is one that had the potential to be a significant boost for economic growth in those areas. The force of a personal mandate batting solely for those areas raised the prospect of smarter leadership able to respond more directly to the problems of the regional economies.

And let’s be honest, any and all help is required, because it is undeniably bleak out there. The three per cent fall in construction output recorded in the first quarter of this year will have come largely from continuing declines in the regional economies. The Olympics, Crossrail, Thameslink and construction of new office towers like the Shard in the City have been keeping the London construction economy reasonably buoyant throughout the recession, notwithstanding a few wobbles. But other than a few bright spots, construction has largely shut down outside the south east, with house prices still falling. (Prices in the North-east are still 13 per cent lower than they were before the credit crunch four years ago, in Northern Ireland they are still a staggering 40 per cent lower than they were).

The Coalition’s policies designed to rebalance the economy between London and the rest have been, so far, quietly disastrous. Scrapping the Regional Development Agencies that had supported job creation schemes across the country for a decade, and a raft of other regeneration funds, took £7bn out of the regional economies. The much touted Regional Growth Fund that replaced this money is worth just £2bn, and as of September last year hadn’t actually handed out any money. If you add to this the limited impact of the (unfunded) Local Economic Partnerships supposed to replace the RDAs, and the fact that direct government construction spend is hugely weighted toward London and the South East, and its not hard to see why the regions are struggling.

The setting up of directly elected mayors was supposed to be one positive move to turn this depressing picture around. It now looks like that spark of light has been extinguished. Expectations for this afternoon’s Coalition re-launch are very limited.

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine.

Photograph: Getty Images

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.