The fast-approaching referendums on directly elected mayors in 10 major UK cities present an opportunity to invigorate local democracy and economic development.
Alexandra Jones is the Chief Executive of Centre for Cities
On May 3rd, people in 10 of the biggest cities in England will vote on whether or not to replace their leader and cabinet with an elected mayor. Campaigns for and against elected mayors have generated substantial media coverage over the past few months.
The key question voters should be asking is what powers these elected mayors will have. Without understanding more of the detail, it will be difficult for citizens to make an informed decision when faced with their ballot paper.
Centre for Cities has consistently argued in favour of elected mayors: the data snap-shot we published earlier this week quantified the size of the job that elected mayors might take on. No leadership model is perfect, and places such as Greater Manchester demonstrate that different structures for governance can yield equally positive results.
Nonetheless, a wide range of evidence suggests mayors have the potential to kickstart economic growth in their cities.
Mayors can act as ambassadors, representing their city to business and to government. Visible to local communities and businesses, they are held to account through elections by the whole local authority, not just a single ward.
Yet to be genuinely effective, they need clearly defined powers over strategic planning, housing and transport. These are the policies that can make a difference to cities’ economic fortunes. Government should address this as a priority.
• Elected mayors: let the referendum campaigns begin 26 Jan 2012
There are also questions about the geography over which mayors have influence. A city’s economic footprint often extends far beyond local authority boundaries.
The labour and housing markets of Leeds, for example, are integrated with those of Bradford and Wakefield, while Bristol’s labour market footprint stretches out from Bristol’s local authority as far as Wotton-under-Edge 16 miles north, and Weston-Super-Mare 18 miles south.
In the future, the government should allow cities with the appetite for it to vote for ‘metro’ mayors, covering more than one local authority to give them the maximum opportunities for creating growth within the city region as a whole. This would produce mayors who represent not just the interests of inner cities, but neighbouring suburbs and rural areas too.
So: to vote or not to vote for a mayor? Mayors are not a panacea for all local-democratic, social and economic ills; cities will make different choices about what is best for them. But Centre for Cities’ research suggests that, in general, mayors could be a good bet.
Given the nature and remit of their job, they have potential to drive forward their cities’ economic agendas, make difficult decisions for growth, and champion their cities to the outside world. In an age of austerity and cuts, effective representation to Westminster and Whitehall is more important than ever.
If the government wants to give mayors the strongest opportunity to make a difference, they should allow cities to vote for a metro mayor if they so wish. A mayor with decision making powers over the whole city economy has the best chance of seeing the bigger picture, and thus making the right decisions for the benefit of the whole of the local economy.