There was a charming piece in the Sunday Times yesterday interviewing Joe Anderson, former seaman and social worker, who is Liverpool’s first elected mayor. Mr Anderson is quoted as saying: “Becoming mayor of Liverpool made me feel absolutely overwhelmed. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I’m passionate about my city.: He goes on to give a compelling account of how he has engendered a “can do attitude” for Liverpool, how he has engaged “through commissions on health, education and the environment as well as creative and digital and fairness, or social inclusion”. How he is, simply, just getting on with it.
It is painful for me to have to admit (but there’s no point in denying it, in this modern world, such is the idiocy of leaving an electronic trail!) that I have been guilty of being hugely wrong on the issue of directly elected mayors. I have been what the Scots would term “peely-wally”, to say the least, on this front. And I am ashamed. I have written on the subject many times but I guess the most damning was in this blog on 4 May 2012 (just after most of our cities had voted against implementing directly elected mayors) when I wrote “I suppose if I’d been pushed on the issue, I was broadly in favour of the idea of the elected mayors. Most regeneration practitioners are, simply because there is powerful evidence worldwide about how much an effective mayor can do for any city seeking inward investment. But there were some scary numbers being bandied about in regard to how much the institution of an elected mayor would cost in some cash-strapped UK cites”. My argument was that we just couldn’t afford any more democratic reform.
Pathetic. My only possible excuse for this lame view is that we were all just so very ground down at the time. The cuts were knackering all of us. And I wasn’t alone in suffering from exhaustion after two years of dealing with the dismantling of the regeneration apparatus littering this country. But with the benefit of hindsight, I have to concede I was so wrong about all this, I now find it toe curling. What I should have been arguing was that we couldn’t afford NOT to have this democratic reform. And it’s no good saying that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not, I should have been actively campaigning for elected mayors. And, worse still, about being wrong then, is that I work for the Minister for Cities now…
And… well… mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…
It is now clear to me that it was a terrible shame and a serious missed opportunity that the majority of English cities given the chance to have directly elected mayors, did not seize it with both hands and run with it at the time. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, the election was just too early. People were not ready. And I reckon it would be a different outcome were those elections to held this month. But of course we will never know.
Joe Anderson (just like Boris Johnson for London, and George Ferguson for Bristol, and Peter Soulsby for Leicester) is set fair to prove to his competitor cities just how much value can be added by the establishment of a mayoral office. Mr Anderson is the driving force behind this summer’s International Festival for Business in Liverpool, an extraordinary 50 days of events through June and July (more of this in tomorrow’s blog). And it would be an understatement to say he is a huge advocate for the city, investing to earn, leveraging his covenant strength, and working with the private sector to create jobs and opportunities for the city of Liverpool. Before his four-year mayoral term ends they will have built 12 new schools and 5,000 houses.
Nobody needs persuading of the strength of the London economy; but just you watch how much Liverpool, Leicester and Bristol improve their city GDP from the baseline of 2012 over the first term of office of their elected mayors, relative to other comparable cities. And then just watch how this is further amplified over the second term. I just hope somebody is doing a study on all this (oh dear, perhaps that should be me! I’d better suggest it in the new job) because the economic dividend from having a directly elected mayor is palpable.
And I just hope that the other cities are paying close attention, and that with the powers and resources conferred on city regions under their local growth deals, they start to think about following suit. Because other cities can still have directly elected mayors if they want. In fact there is quite a powerful argument to say that under localism they are perfectly within their rights to choose their own moment to do so. And with the economy on the up, and the huge amount of overseas investment seeking a home in the UK, it sure might be a timely thing to do.