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Are Metro mayors a distraction too far?

Are Metro mayors a distraction too far?

🕔15.Jun 2011

Of course, this week’s announcement of Albert Bore’s attempt to be the Labour mayoral candidate for Birmingham was a major step forward for the ‘yes’ campaign, but another event on the same day was just as significant.

Mayoral cheerleader, think tank head and former Labour minister Lord Adonis was in town to help launch the joint Centre for Cities and Institute for Government report into the potential economic impact of elected mayors in the 11 core English cities that are yet to opt for the system.

Leave aside for a moment the significance of the choice of Birmingham for the launch (and in our view that is VERY significant). Leave aside the choice of KPMG as the host venue  (see above). And leave aside the fact that Adonis’s major intervention in the mayoral debate is yet to come – when he submits his ‘letter’ to Eric Pickles within the next few weeks. (The latter will reveal to what extent Adonis will translate his frustration with the shadow mayor concept into a firm policy proposal).

The report, ‘Big Shot or Long Shot’ articulates many familiar as well as new arguments for elected mayors, and its proposals focus on the reach and powers of the elected mayor’s office. Co-chairing the LEP and leading the Integrated Transport Authority make sense, but the call for mayors to span multi-authority city regions is a brave call for a fundamental change at the eleventh hour of the Localism Bill.

Sutton Tory councillor Phil Parkin, former deputy to leader Mike Whitby, and a lonely pro-mayor voice in the local party, says raising the issue now is ‘unnecessarily complicating.’

In the Birmingham context, he has a point. The schism between Birmingham and the Black Country was played out most starkly in the formation of two separate LEPs. The prospect of a Birmingham mayor directly calling the shots over major planning issues in Wolverhampton is unlikely to provoke a reconciliation any time soon.

But just as we argued recently that the Black Country LEP is hampered by its self-imposed geographical constraints,we think  its only assurance of long-term economic prosperity lies in its association with Birmingham. That may well be best achieved by joining with Birmingham and other districts under the coordination and leadership of an elected mayor directing infrastructure, economic development and spatial planning across the whole of the Birmingham City Region.

But one step at a time – the concept of a ‘metro mayor’ for the wider Birmingham region will only become feasible in our view after an elected mayor for Birmingham proves the value and potential of the role to the extent that neighbouring authorities and their citizens will look on enviously, and want to share in the benefits.

The report was right to point out the concept of the  ‘earned powers’  that will accrue to successful mayors, just as they have in London for Boris and Ken. Voters in next May’s referendum need to have in mind the powers that a future mayor may earn over and above the powers handed to him or her on day one.

A wider scope for the role in the form of a metro mayor is by far the most significant, because coherent leadership over a city region of upwards of two million people will create an economic powerhouse far more significant than one constrained within Birmingham’s city limits.

Far from being ‘unnecessarily complicating’, the concept of metro mayors should be aired openly – even at this stage. It’s part of the big picture, after all, and voters need to know what they’re voting for.

Some will be appalled at this prospect of  ‘regionalism by the back door’, but the bigger clout of metros will also address the concerns of those who question whether elected mayors will have any more powers than do council leaders.

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