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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle