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A quiet revolution in local government

Kevin McKeever, Head of Portland Local, examines the potential challenges and opportunities that the mayoral referendums will present for ten of England’s largest cities

The elections for the first Police and Crime Commissioners across England and Wales and the contest for London’s Mayor are dominating the little media attention given to local government. A range of high-profile candidates, from former ministers such as Labour’s John Prescott to Iraq veteran Colonel Tim Collins, have already announced they want to run the police in their communities when elections take place in November. Round Two of the Boris and Ken show in the capital sees two of the country’s most prominent politicians go head to head in May.

But arguably more significant is another step in the quiet revolution which is transforming the way our towns and cities are run. On the same day that London chooses its Mayor, voters in ten of England’s largest cities will vote on whether they want the same chance in the future. Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield are all holding referenda on the creation of their own directly-elected Mayors. The move, promised in the Coalition Agreement and enabled by the Localism Act, would add these cities to the 15 communities who have already enjoyed the chance to chose directly their own local leader.

London, is, of course, the most prominent. And whatever you think of the politics and personalities of Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, it seems unlikely that such important initiatives as the congestion charge or Crossrail would have been delivered without their leadership. Success is also evident on a smaller scale elsewere. Hackney, once one of London’s poorest performing local authorities, has been making steady progress under its own directly-elected leader.

It’s not, however, been a success everywhere. Stoke, one of the first cities to try the new post, has already reverted to a more traditional system of local government control. Doncaster’s residents are to vote on a similar switch back.

Critics of the directly elected model claim that the system focuses too much power on one, potentially maverick, individual. Existing councillors are often lukewarm at best about the change. Looking at the number of independents elected, traditional political parties can also be suspicious.

It is true, of course, that the new post does concentrate power. That, after all, is the intention. But it can be argued that the increased visibility of elected mayors and the clear mandate to deliver a manifesto programme makes them more accountable than their local government counterparts.

Research by the Department of Communities and Local Government shows that 57% of people can name their directly-elected mayor while only 25% can name the leader of their council. Businesses in particular, can enjoy the certainty and direction of dealing with one person. There is evidence, too, that cities can gain a competitive edge when attracting investment.

It helps explain why councillors in Liverpool decided to skip the planned referendum this May and jump straight to voters electing a mayor. Encouraged by the promise of £130 million in government funds, Liverpool will be one of eight “core cities” which can negotiate their own package of powers with central Government.

Liverpool is not the only community to decide it did not want to wait for a referendum in May. Fears in Salford that Manchester’s bid for a directly elected mayor would see the city become even more dominant within the wider area led campaigners to trigger their own referendum using powers brought in by the last Labour Government. The poll, held in January, agreed that Salford should have the chance to elect its own Boris or Ken.

But the new mayors are not necessarily going to enjoy the same freedom as their London counterparts. Perhaps stung by the negative experiences of Doncaster and Stoke, powers for newly elected mayors are to be negotiated on a city-by-city basis with Eric Pickles.

The Communities Secretary will decide, under the Localism Act, which public functions are to be transferred to the new office-holders and their communities. This opens the way for savvy private sector stakeholders to help shape the powers and freedom the new mayors will enjoy. This could be particularly important given the potential under the Act for local authorities to be able to leverage public funding to boost private investment for capital intensive regeneration and infrastructure development.

This new model of gradual and diverse devolution to newly elected mayors should, hopefully, help to avoid some of the early mistakes of local government democratisation. But they should also provide the basis for revitalised strong civic leadership to kick start growth and help cities to reach their economic potential.

These new structures of city leadership will present challenges as well as opportunities to those used to dealing with the far more predictable nationwide models of local government. The potential landscape for developers and regeneration companies especially, is likely to become hugely varied, with some mayors having limited planning competencies while others may successfully bid for the same sort of sweeping strategic powers enjoyed by the capital’s Mayor.

What is absolutely certain is that it will be more important than ever for business to invest in understanding their local government partners. Time and resources will have to be devoted to understanding the role of the City Mayors and what they can and can’t do.

Kevin McKeever is Head of Portland Local. He advises clients on local government pre-planning communications, alongside Westminster and Whitehall policy campaigning, centred on the property development and regeneration industry.