Up until a week ago, the chances of a North West city adopting a governance model that was being promoted by the coalition government appeared remote. After all, Manchester and Liverpool have council’s with large Labour majorities, and both had indicated that they were likely to campaign against the establishment of elected mayors in their cities. The chances of any idea wrapped up in blue paper being supported in a referendum in either of these Labour strongholds was as likely as Carlos Tevez being named as Player of the Season by City fans in April.
Then, news broke that Liverpool’s leadership had been negotiating a ‘city deal’ with the government through the winter, and agreement had been reached. The city will adopt an elected mayor model, without a referendum, next week. With this transformational move, Liverpool will benefit from an initial injection of some £130m. The new mayor, who will be elected in May, will also have powers to select ‘mayoral enterprise zones’, and be given responsibility of huge swathes of land and assets once owned by the Regional Development Agency and the Housing Corporation. Overall, some estimate that the package could be worth up to £1Billion!
Downtown Liverpool in Business has long argued for the adoption of an elected mayor for a city that, though much improved during the past decade, still suffers from the plethora of agencies involved in its governance, and parochial sub- regional politics that only this week saw talks about progressing the city-region Local Enterprise Partnership collapse. Downtown Liverpool members have also consistently supported the notion of an elected mayor, and in our poll this week over 70% of them indicated agreement once again.
In Manchester, our members have been equally consistent in their opposition – and who can blame them? In Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein they have enjoyed a ‘dream team’ leadership that has delivered success after success and made Manchester the premier provincial city in the UK. Their skills have not only included a unique ability to work positively with the private sector, but also to bring together all the local authorities in Greater Manchester to form a combined authority that has strategic powers over planning, transport and economic development policy- and with it the ability to attract significant sums of government cash, even in these days of austerity. The jointly owned Airport provides the foundation on which the AGMA partnership has flourished over the years, but nobody can deny that the negotiating talents, vision and leadership of the two Manchester knights has been THE key advantage that the city has enjoyed over other core cities.
The poll result from Manchester therefore, with 80% saying ‘No’ to the mayoral proposition is understandable. But will that change? For not only did Liverpool opt for the mayoral model last week, but so too did the residents of Salford – or at least the 10% who bothered to vote in a referendum on the issue that was held last Thursday did.
Sir Richard was right to tell DMIB members the day following this vote that he could see little difference being made to the direction of the Combined Authority simply because Salford was going to call its leader a mayor. The Salford job does not come with the package of powers and resources negotiated by Liverpool. But he will know that if a Maverick candidate is elected in May – and on a low poll anything can happen- then it may be a more problematic move than initially thought.
I think that scenario unlikely. Nonetheless, Sir Richard and Sir Howard cannot go on forever, and when they do decide to go off into the sunset, there may be more of an appetite to explore alternative governance arrangements.
And, where does all of this leave England’s newest city Preston, and the proud county of Lancashire. Well, as has so often been the case during the past decade, on the sidelines I’m afraid. The idea of an elected mayor for Preston was reasonably well supported in our poll, though fell short of a majority, and despite the government finally banging heads together last year and forcing the county’s local authorities to form a Local Enterprise Partnership, the type parochialism that has held back Liverpool is a killer in Lancashire.
A debate about Lancashire’s local government arrangements certainly needs to be had, but so too the involvement of the business community. Is Lancashire’s LEP private sector led, or is it simply an additional committee of Lancashire county Council with a few members of the private sector rubber stamping decisions for box ticking purposes? There was talk of ‘beefing up’ business input into the LEP. But so far, no action!
An elected mayor in Liverpool will be good for the city. ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix’ it is a sensible position for Manchester to adopt – certainly for now. But for Preston and Lancashire we are still searching for what the question needs to be, let alone the answer.