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Metro Mayors – yes, we’re warming, but so is the globe, and possibly faster

Metro Mayors – yes, we’re warming, but so is the globe, and possibly faster

🕔16.May 2016

I was planning to write something on the recent mayoral elections – particularly Marvin Rees’ remarkable victory for Labour in Bristol – when along came Paul Dale’s report on the Centre for Cities/ComRes comparative survey of those of us who aren’t going to have that mayoral voting opportunity for another 12 months, says Chris Game

Over half those questioned across the West Midlands (53%) thought that the new Combined Authority (CA) mayors that we and several other city regions will be electing next May should have greater (albeit unspecified) powers than those of the indirectly elected council leaders they’ll replace.

With ‘only’ a quarter (26%) thinking the reverse, Paul reckoned this could be the first indication that voters are beginning to warm to the mayoral system” (my emphases).

Well, yes, but don’t those two qualifications in a 12-word clause say it all? They reminded me of the arguments about whether the one-off sighting of a ladybird, frogspawn, or a probably non-migrating swallow qualifies as the first sign of Spring, when I want to see at least a show of bloody snowdrops.

I suppose it depends whether you’re a glass half-full or half-empty person.  Paul’s right – as people hear more about elected mayors, they do seem, very gradually, to be coming round to the idea.

In the West Midlands, though, as shown in the table, we’re hearing about and warming to them at an even more glacial pace than in most other city regions. There must be regions of the Arctic where the temperature’s rising faster.

Centre for Cities_Chris Game

After all, there are more elected mayors around nowadays – 17 at present, with those seven metro mayors in the offing – and, unlike when they were first introduced, several in potentially role-model cities, like Leicester and Bristol, Liverpool and Salford.

Then there’s the TINA factor – as it’s become blindingly obvious that, under Chancellor George Osborne’s laughably self-styled ‘Devolution Revolution’, There Is No Alternative to mayors.

As explained previously in these columns, it’s not a revolution, and can’t seriously pretend to be without some significant measure of fiscal devolution, and while the whole deal-negotiation business is run arbitrarily and dictatorially from the Treasury.

Just how arbitrarily became even more evident over the last week – first in a critical report by the University of Newcastle calling, among other things, for an independent Devolution Commission with the authority to inject some policy coherence and consistency into the whole process, and secondly the Lords’ specific criticism of the handling, at both ends, of the West Midlands so-called public consultation.

It is, of course, a key feature of this top-down process that its Chancellor ring-master dogmatically specifies not just the mayoral form of governance and accountability required for any worthwhile devolution of powers to the CAs he approves, but even its terminology.

No governors, sheriffs, or anything else that might encounter less resistance outside the big cities – no, all must have and must call them mayors.

It’s daft and damaging, but, assisted by Boris Johnson’s antics in London, it has served to keep mayors in the public eye.

Yet, even with all these potential nudges to our attention, there are still fewer than two in five of us in the West Midlands – ranging from 44% in Birmingham and Coventry to 30% in Sandwell – who claim any real familiarity with what’s happening.

Which must be rather discouraging for all those who’ve worked their socks off over the past months to get the WMCA off the ground – their only obvious consolation being that they’re not alone.

The Centre for Cities survey was replicated across four other regions, including Liverpool, who’ve had a city mayor for four years, and Greater Manchester, not just the long-term pace-setters of city regional devolution but who for the past year now have actually had an interim metro mayor.

Not even in Greater Manchester – indeed, in not one of the study regions – were even half the respondents as much as fairly familiar with the office to which they’re going to elect next May someone who’ll be the figurehead and embodiment of the biggest change in sub-central English government in at least a generation.

The obvious point is that it’s simply hard to warm to something you know and care little about, which was similarly the biggest reason why only one in ten of the city mayoral referendums held on the same day in May 2012 produced a positive response.

Birmingham’s – 42% for, 58% against – was bang in the middle of the range. It was a disappointing result not least for the Chamberlain Files that had been created at least partly to further the cause of Birmingham having an elected mayor, but, like the results overall, not entirely surprising.

Those referendums were imposed by an austerity-driven Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition on increasingly cash-strapped mainly Labour local authorities. Most of their leaders and councillors opposed the whole principle of elected mayors – Birmingham here being something of an exception.

Generally, though, sceptical councillors weren’t going out of their way to run the kinds of high-profile, city-wide information and educational campaigns needed to familiarise voters with this entirely new and authoritarian-sounding way of doing local government, let alone persuade them to vote for it.

As with Police and Crime Commissioners, if ministers wanted us to vote for their new alien institutions, it was their responsibility to persuade us why we should – and in both cases they just couldn’t give, well, a rat’s bottom.

Bristol was different in several ways, but perhaps two in particular. First, it had been too democratic. Unlike all those councils run by the same cadre of Labour politicians for decades, control of Bristol changed after elections – during the noughties from Labour majority to Labour minority to Lib Dem minority to Lib Dem majority.

Conservative ministers and mayorists argued that this sensitivity to electoral democracy was in fact instability, and the cause of Bristol ‘punching below its weight’ (whatever that meant) – or even further below its weight than other cities were alleged to.

Secondly, as a unitary authority, rather than metropolitan borough, Bristol was the only referendum city not to have coinciding local elections in 2012. If you voted at all, it had to be for or against having an elected mayor, which didn’t do much for the turnout, but necessarily made for a different calculus than in the other cities – enough perhaps to produce the narrow 53% to 47% Yes majority.

Bristol’s first mayoral election in November 2012 was like several others have been over the years: huge number of candidates (15), unexceptional turnout (28%), and the election of an Independent – in this case George Ferguson, a nationally and locally prominent architect, entrepreneur, red-trousered champion of environmental and educational causes, and one-time Liberal councillor.

He proved the kind of ‘Marmite mayor’ that some of both his supporters and opponents predicted: highly visible and active city ambassador, regenerator of the Imperial Tobacco Factory as an arts/independent business/residential centre, saviour of the floating harbour, instigator of car-driving restrictions and dedicated city centre bus routes, but with allegedly authoritarian and indisputably polarising tendencies.

Above all, he raised the profile of the elected mayoralty and demonstrated some of its huge potential. The proof being in this year’s election, in which he was defeated by the 2012 runner-up – Labour’s Marvin Rees, born and raised in the tough inner-city St Pauls area, with a manifesto pledged to tackle inequality and build large numbers of affordable homes – on a turnout of 48%, or half again as high as last week’s average met borough election turnout.

Now that really is a measure of ‘warming to the mayoral system’.

Pic: Marvin Rees, Bristol 24/7

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