With an elected Mayor, will Sheffield bring more influence to bear when dealing with government and investors?
Voters in Sheffield will be asked to decide on the future of their city governance in a referendum today, Thursday May 3rd. The choice is between keeping the current system where they elect councillors who in turn choose a leader and cabinet members, or to move to a directly-elected mayor to run their city.
Kevin Meagher, chair of the cross-party Mayor4Sheffield campaign, makes a compelling case for change, telling Left Foot Forward:
“We’d have a real champion for Sheffield bringing more influence to bear when dealing with government and investors.
“It should be clear, after the disaster of Sheffield Forgemasters, that we’re not being listened to down in Whitehall. Sheffield is a deeply divided city and we have too many ingrained social and economic problems not to have our case heard by decision-makers.
“We need a mayor – elected by the whole city – to shout for us and make sure that case is heard.”
• Elected mayors: To vote or not to vote? 26 Apr 2012
• Elected mayors: let the referendum campaigns begin 26 Jan 2012
Opponents of the proposed change in Sheffield include Unison, who complain of the referendum being “imposed” on the city with “no public demand”.
With referendums across ten of England’s largest cities on Thursday, Meagher takes a bigger picture approach, worrying about Sheffield being left behind if it opts to cling onto existing structures.
Cities like Sheffield face huge issues, he points out, including a 17-year life expectancy difference between the poorest and wealthiest. With savage public spending cuts to manage and regional public sector pay negotiations looming – let alone scrutinising NHS reforms – Meagher speaks of the Council Leader’s megaphone not being big enough.
He told Left Foot Forward:
“Friday will see the creation of a premier league of cities with powerful elected mayors, using the clout that a direct mandate gives them to fight for their cities’ interests, dealing with ministers in Westminster as equals.
“Cities like Sheffield benefited enormously from 13 years of Labour’s economic growth, revised funding formulas that helped deprived northern boroughs and massive new investments in public services. But those days are over.
“We are in the second year of austerity, with five more to come. There is less money to go around so we need to be able to fight our corner harder than ever.”
There is a strong case for the high visibility of elected mayors leading to accountability, enhancing direct engagement with the electorate and providing a mechanism to address the north-south divide.
Personality is just one aspect of political engagement, but without big names campaigning for a “yes” vote some report the campaign having not really come alive in Sheffield, as yet.
One campaigner told Left Foot Forward:
“Potential candidates are sitting on the fence and waiting to see what happens. I guess this will be closer than, say, the Birmingham campaign, as no big names like Liam Byrne have come out and said they want to be mayor.”
One very big name in Sheffield is David Blunkett, MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, former home secretary and leader of Sheffield city council during the Thatcher years.
He told Left Foot Forward:
“I think there is now a tendency to move towards executive style government, from the power of the First Minister of Scotland through to the police and crime commissioners to directly elected mayors.
“The Liberal Democrat obsession with changing the nature of parliament, with the Executive outside the legislature, would take a further step forward if ministers were to attend a revised House of Lords but would not be members of it!
“Whilst a coordinating mayor for the city region has real logic, maintaining the commitment to very local elected representatives (which is what elected councillors exemplify) emphasises subsidiarity but, more importantly, participative and locally devolved politics.”
For the last 20 years, Sheffield South East’s MP has been Clive Betts, who spells out his antagonism rather more starkly, telling Left Foot Forward:
“An elected council leader can be held to account by the 84 other Sheffield City councillors, but during their four-year term there is no democratic control over a directly elected mayor. It would really mean an elected dictatorship.”
Mayors will have at least the same powers of a council leader. Extra powers have been promised by the prime minister, maybe over transport, in a similar way London’s mayor has secured extra powers over Transport for London, policing and planning.
This week in Parliament Betts accused cities minister Greg Clark MP of misleading the public over the allure of new powers, pointing out the PM had already assured him back in March that extra powers could be obtained, mayor or no mayor.
There is palpable irritation expressed against switching to a model of elected mayors, which is matched with a real zeal for change in “yes” campaigners. This is true in Sheffield and mirrored in Bristol and Birmingham, tipped to be the most likely cities to vote “yes” this Thursday. Though with paltry polling it is impossible to really know.