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5 January 2018updated 04 Sep 2021 4:30pm

Why mayors will rule the world

City leaders are leading the response to big global economic and political challenges – national leaders should take notice. 

By Steve Rotheram

In 2013, the late political theorist Benjamin Barber argued that city leaders would soon be at the forefront of addressing the big global economic and political issues we face, and providing democratic accountability in an increasingly globalised world.

Four years on, that vision is becoming a reality – with mayors on both sides of the Atlantic playing an increasingly important role in addressing the issues that matter most to people across both the UK and US.

That was brought home at the inaugural metro mayors’ summit held in London last month (organised by Centre for Cities in partnership with Citi and Boston University’s Initiative on Cities). It brought together England’s new metro mayors (elected in May this year) with counterpart cities across the US.

As mayors of places nearly 5,000 miles apart, and coming from different political backgrounds, it was eye-opening for us to see how much we – and the other UK and US mayors – had in common in terms of the challenges we face and our ambitions for our cities.

Most significantly, it was clear from our discussions that it is mayors who are leading the charge in tackling the big global issues that affect our citizens, as well as local issues. Our cities are where the “rubber hits the road” in terms of the key political and economic concerns of our age – from ensuring more people can benefit from economic growth, to giving people and communities everywhere a greater say in the democratic process.

Take, for the example, the need to address the concerns of the “left behind” people and places, who had a pivotal influence in both the vote for Brexit and the last US presidential election. It is mayors, not national leaders, who are best placed to connect citizens to political decision-making, and to bridge the gap that has too often existed between the two. After all, mayors are the most visible politicians on a day-to-day basis to people in cities across the UK and US. We are rooted in our communities, and offer a critical means for people to raise the concerns or issues they want to raise.

Importantly, it is also mayors who have led the way in offering leadership for cities in times of crisis and need. That was notable in the UK following the Manchester and Borough Market terrorist attacks and in the US after the Charleston church shooting. In each of those terrible incidents, city mayors provided leadership and accountability which at times was missing from national leaders.

Moreover, at a time when national politics in both the UK and US are increasingly polarised along party political lines, we are showing national politicians how to put pragmatism above partisanship in order to deliver for the people and places they also represent. In particular, mayors across the globe are increasingly coming together to make the most of our collective influence.

In the US, it’s long been said that there are three political parties – Republicans, Democrats and mayors. As such, city leaders have worked together on a number of bipartisan initiatives – for example, to tackle climate change – showing a capacity to move beyond party divides which has too often been lacking among Washington representatives.

A similar trend is starting to emerge in the UK, where city region mayors – both Conservative and Labour – have come together to push the Government for more influence and powers within our areas. This underlines the value of mayors working together with their peers in other cities and other countries to make the most of shared experiences and collective political clout.

But it is crucial now that mayors on both sides of the Atlantic have the powers and scope they need to continue to deliver for their places. In the UK, the biggest problem is that mayors do not have the level of powers we need to make the biggest possible difference in driving economic growth, and increasing opportunities for all citizens.

In the Liverpool City Region, for example, alongside tackling our skills shortage, the biggest priority is to accelerate economic growth and make the most of our outstanding natural, human and economic assets. To do that in the long-term will require significant autonomy when it comes to tax-and-spending powers and other key policy areas – powers which UK mayors are currently denied.

In the US, mayors are much more powerful – but the focus should be on protecting our influence in the face of potential mission creep from state and federal authorities. In Texas, for example, we have recently seen state authorities attempt to impose a ban on cities from legislating on issues ranging from planning permission to regulation of plastic grocery bags and ride-sharing car companies. This trend needs to be challenged if US mayors are to continue to deliver for our residents in the way that they both expect and deserve. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, mayors are uniquely placed to represent the interests of their areas to national governments who cannot ever be as attuned to the needs of local people. By working together, we can provide genuine democratic accountability while effectively delivering for our local areas.

Steve Rotheram is metro mayor of Liverpool city region. Betsy Price is mayor of Fort Worth, Texas.

This content has been paid for and coordinated by the Centre for Cities. 

Mayors Steve Rotheram and Betsy Price were not paid for their contributions.

Centre for Cities has been collaborating with the New Statesman’s sister site CityMetric on a series analysing data and crunching the numbers on British cities. Read more here

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