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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.