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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder