Sexy Politics?

Sexy Politics

Our latest poll is asking Downtown members and supporters if they support for the introduction of a Metro Mayor Governance model for Leeds, though at the moment there is little inclination from our region’s civic leaders to adopt this structure and a rather ambivalent response from the wider community to the idea.

There is certainly little mileage in the argument that just because Greater Manchester is to have a Metro Mayor means that Leeds should have one. This is the lowest common denominator narrative that must be resisted by those of us who believe that a figurehead to lead on the strategic issues for the city region and act as a genuine champion for the Leeds City Region on the national and international stage would be a force for good.

The purpose of the role, in part, ought to be to widen the democratic process, engage people in a more exciting and meaningful election, and provide a more transparent and accountable city region leadership than the one we have at present.

It is odd that council leaders claim that the imposition of a Metro Mayor is ‘undemocratic’ whilst supporting the existing structure that sees the leader of the regions Combined Authority elected by small groups of council leaders in behind closed doors deals.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that if we are to enjoy the type of political renaissance that was witnessed during the Scottish Referendum this year, make politics sexy to the majority rather than just the ‘anoraks’ and activists, then we should not simply have party candidates selected in the same old fashioned way, with constituency associations and Trades Unions stitching things up. We must do better than that.

That is why I like the idea of ‘Primaries’ to select candidates of all the mainstream parties, particularly for these ‘new’ positions that are set to be created in all city regions across England sooner or later.

Primary elections would allow a much broader number of the electorate to take part in seeing candidates, quizzing them, and supporting the nominee that they felt was best for the job. It would open up the democratic process to a whole range of people who have become disillusioned and disengaged from politics, partly due to the party machines basically selecting candidates who will inevitably be elected in the many ‘safe’ seats that exist, not only in Leeds, but in all English cities.

The suggestion, as was made by several delegates in Manchester at our conference there last week, that the Metro Mayor should not be ‘a bloody Councillor’ may strike a chord for those who think that a Russell Brand type character would shake things up and get things done. The reality is that some experience of political management is not only an advantage, but an essential component to the job – otherwise we will just have faceless, unaccountable regional civil servants running the show.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should just accept the Status Quo for selection purposes, or rule out some new people throwing their hat in the ring for these potentially exciting new posts. You never know, we may even get a woman or two having a go. And as Ken Livingstone proved in the first London Mayoral election, a decent Independent can stir things up too.

If we are talking about a new way of doing politics, a sexier way, then surely Primaries are at least worth considering.

It’s Not Who it’s What

Power to the North

This week has been dominated by the news that Manchester is to get a metro mayor, devolved powers and £1billion!

Immediately Liverpool is lobbying hard and screaming ‘us too’, although it is proving challenging for city mayor Joe Anderson to convince his district colleagues to create a ‘Boris for Merseyside’.

Part of the problem, a huge part, is that personalities are getting in the way of progress. The discussion and debate about devolution to Liverpool is fast turning into a conversation about ‘who’ those powers will go to rather than the far more important question of ‘what will those powers be’.

It is recognised by all the council leaders that devolution to the city region level is a good thing. Let’s start with transport, planning, health, social care and housing. More resources, yes please. If we need to agree to have an elected mayor for the region to get this prize, that should be agreed too.

The argument that there is some kind of ‘democratic deficit’ going on with the ‘imposition’ of a new structure of local governance would only hold water if the existing system was not totally broken. Turnouts for Parliamentary seats in this part of the world are poor – for local council elections they are embarrassing.

What is more ‘undemocratic’? A leader for the city region elected by six council leaders between them, behind closed doors – or a directly elected mayor who we all get the chance to vote in, and crucially, vote out if necessary as well.

It is a no brainer, and it is why the leaders of the Greater Manchester authorities took the pragmatic decision to sigh such a deal with Chancellor George Osborne this week, and ensure that their region will continue to be seen as the exemplar of local government.

The window of opportunity for this massive devolution offer will not be open forever. The leaders of our six councils have an absolute duty to get their act together quickly – before that window slams shut.

The Mayor, the city region and car boot sales…

Combined Authority

Downtown Liverpool joined forces with the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and Pro Liverpool yesterday morning to discuss the future of our city region with Mayor Joe Anderson and 200 business leaders.

The issues that have caused most controversy and consternation in recent weeks – the name of the proposed combined authority that brings together the six local authorities from across the Liverpool city region, and who should lead that body, were high on the agenda, but seemingly have still to be fully resolved.

As Liverpool’s leading politician Joe Anderson is clearly doing his best to cajole, compromise and convince his fellow colleagues from Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral to do the right thing, but in the end he must resist giving in too much, otherwise the potential power and influence of the new body will be lost before it has even got off the ground.

That being said, one cannot do anything other than admire the passion and fire in the belly that Joe Anderson demonstrates when he articulates the case for Liverpool to collaborate not just with neighbouring districts but other core cities too in order to deliver continued progress and economic growth for his home town.

As the excellent Michael Parkinson of the University of Liverpool stated at the breakfast seminar, the opportunities that exist for attracting inward investment are all the more powerful if we can get the whole region rowing in the same direction. But his more pertinent point was this: With an ever shrinking pot of public funding, governments will want to spend their cash with partners they trust to deliver.

Manchester has that credibility in abundance. Liverpool city region, in no small part because of petty rows over name checking Halton in every strategy document, or marketing the latest car boot sale in Wirral as an official IFB event, has a reputation in Whitehall of being a ‘risky’ partner; a bit of a basket case.

Government ministers, particularly Eric Pickles, have been immature in taking advantage of a local row among Labour council leaders and MP’s with the absurd name he has saddled the Combined Authority with, but he should never have been given the open goal to shoot in to in the first place.

It is time for our local authority leaders to put their parochial agenda’s aside and accept Liverpool, once and for all, as the attack brand for the city region, and Joe Anderson as the best personality to lead a Combined Authority. Then Whitehall may take us a little more seriously than it appears to at the moment.

We Need a Metro Mayor

Metro Mayor

Liverpool’s growth during the past decade has been impressive, and it is right that the major regeneration projects and infrastructure schemes that have been delivered in this time are heralded and celebrated.

A hugely impressive Capital of Culture year, Liverpool One, the Arena, the transformation of our waterfront, a booming visitor and tourism economy, the Global Entrepreneurship Congress are among the highlights.

Still to come Cruise Liners terminals, a conference and convention centre, more quality hotels, bars and restaurants, the International Festival of Business and the big one – Liverpool Waters.

You would have to be the most miserable bugger on the planet not to acknowledge the scale and the impact of these magnificent developments.

And yet, even to someone like me, a glass half full kind of guy, and an organisation like ours, which has positivity coursing through everything we do, there is the nagging doubt that we could and should be doing better.

This is not simply gut instinct. It is borne out of the official statistics that are readily available from all good local authority statisticians and other good (and not so good) public sector agencies.

Unemployment in this part of the world is depressingly high, and most worrying is the figure for youth and long term unemployment.

We are 6,000 businesses short of where Liverpool needs to be if we are to start punching our private sector weight. That figure grows to an alarming 18,000 if we consider the wider city region.

The biggest complaint we get from our members, other than access to finance, is the lack of skills that exist in the local labour market.

These are all challenges that must be met over the next decade if we are to maintain momentum and maximise the opportunities that are now available to us.

The ammunition to get this job done is much reduced though. For, like it or not, many of those projects, initiatives and achievements were delivered by public funding. European Objective One monies in its millions flooded into Merseyside, whilst local government, supported by national government grant, underpinned much of what has been built.

With the vast reduction of public sector finance, hitting many areas of the North harder than most, it is imperative that public agencies are ruthless in their approach to streamlining, sharing services, working in genuine partnership with the private sector, and continuing to invest in the growth areas of economic development and business support.

A new Combined Authority looks set to be agreed, bringing together the council’s of Liverpool, Wirral, St Helens, Knowsly, Sefton and Halton. This is clearly a step in the right direction, but already a dilution of this organisations potential is underway with talk of a ‘rotating’ leader and the return of the dreaded ‘M’ word.

Downtown was the most vocal of private sector cheerleaders for the introduction of an elected mayor for Liverpool. Eighteen months into that new role being created, and it is obvious to me that city mayors have one hand tied behind their back if they do not have control of the strategic powers and spending in matters such as transport, planning and economic policy.

We need a metro mayor to provide clear and decisive leadership, get the best for an ever decreasing public sector buck by forcing change at the city region level, and delivering a public-private sector growth agenda, including some of those major infrastructure schemes I mentioned earlier, that will ensure that the Liverpool city region accelerates its progress and makes the next ten years even better than the last ten.