Why all the fuss about mayors?

The 10 new city mayors would be among the most influential individuals in the country.

The Boris and Ken show may be stealing most of the headlines but on 3 May ten of the largest English cities outside London will be hosting referenda to determine whether they will be run by a directly elected mayor instead of a leader and cabinet.

There has been much discussion about elected mayors – should we go for them or shouldn’t we? It was back in 2000 when cities were given the option to move to the mayoral model, yet since then only 12 out of 410 local authorities have chosen to do so. Conviction from government, however, remains strong, as demonstrated by David Cameron’s speech on Monday: “If you want to see your city grow more prominent, more powerful, more prosperous - get out and vote yes.”

Centre for Cities’ research suggests that mayors have the potential to make a difference in their cities. Our latest study shows that if mayors are introduced, they will be amongst the most influential individuals in the country. They would, for instance, represent far more people that the average MP. A mayor of Birmingham would represent over 1 million people, while Liam Byrne MP’s constituency in that city has a population of just 117,300.  This visibility would give mayors the opportunity to drive their cities’ economic priorities.

Our work also shows that the 10 city mayors would have big jobs to do because they need to focus on public services and supporting economic growth. In London, the mayor has 33 London boroughs to look after the everyday needs of their constituents, from social care to collecting the bins, meaning that the London mayor can focus on the economy. But a mayor, if elected in the other 10 cities, would have a much longer ‘to do’ list.

In Leeds, for example, a mayor would need to oversee education in around 250 schools, 50 of which are operating over capacity, at the same time as responding to unemployment challenges. In Nottingham, a mayor would need to provide high quality children’s services and help to coordinate work to improve the skills of the 14,600 people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).

Supporting business and physical development will also be a sizable task for new mayors. A mayor in Newcastle, for example, would need to efficiently process planning applications (there were 1,560 in 2010/11) as well as ensure that the city’s 7,500 businesses employing over 100,000 people are supported. And, all this must be done in an era of austerity, which a mayor will have to manage. The ten mayoral cities combined are expected to see their revenue spending power fall by at least 3.8 percent in the new financial year.

With all of this, plus responsibility for delivery of a wide range of public services there is a risk that the economic development agenda is pushed too far down the agenda. But in a time of slow economic recovery, support from mayors for the economy is vital – and this is where the experience of international cities suggests that having a mayor can be an advantage. Having one clear figurehead who acts as an ambassador for the city to government and to business, who lobbies for investment and who coordinates the work of the public sector has delivered benefits in cities as varied as Boston and Barcelona.

The government has resisted setting out the powers that mayors will gain, arguing that this should be up to individual cities to negotiate.  But a recent BBC poll suggested that 62 per cent of people in Doncaster, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield didn’t know the referendum was taking place, so now is a good time for the government raise awareness by spelling out what powers will be afforded to mayors. 

Our research suggests that mayors should use their position to develop a strategic plan for the local economy that also considers how the local area relates to neighbours. They should be empowered to take planning decisions of strategic importance, delegating all others to the local authority planning committee.

Finally, the referenda in May are for local authority mayors. But, research by Centre for Cities suggests that mayors would have greater potential to support local economic growth if they operated over a geography which mirrors the natural economy, rather than current administrative boundaries. Bristol’s labour market footprint for example stretches out from Bristol local authority to Wotton-under-Edge 16 miles North and Weston-Super-Mare 18 miles south.  Government should therefore give cities the opportunity to move towards a metro mayor model over time.

Mayors are no panacea but our research shows that, particularly if they are given the right range of powers, mayors have the potential to deliver significant benefits for city economies.

Alexandra Jones is the chief executive of Centre for Cities.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne plans to stand for mayor of Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alexandra Jones is the director of the Centre for Cities

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.