The mayoral future for England's great cities

  • 1 December 2011
  • From the section UK Politics
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Are we about to see Devolution Mark II? Is Westminster about to hand significant power back to the great cities of England?

Parliament has passed two bills which could reshape our politics in a very important way. The Localism Act will require the 12 biggest cities in England to hold referenda to consider a switch to elected executive Mayors - the result could be a Boris-type figure in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield . The Police Reform Act will require elections for Police Commissioners for every force in England and Wales, outside London. And suddenly there will be major decision-makers outside Westminster. (Oh, and there's an interesting rumour going around that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is toying with suggesting that the Chair of National Park authorities should also be elected.)

I spent Wednesday morning at an Institute for Government (IFG) discussion on elected mayors at London's City Hall - with Britain's best-known elected Mayor, Boris Johnson, and the '80s prophet of the whole idea, Lord Heseltine, pondering the implications. Lord Heseltine noted that local councils had long had the right to switch to elected mayors, but few had done so - not least because councillors rightly concluded that powerful elected mayors drained power from them. But he thought that communities outside London would increasingly find themselves squeezed between Boris in the capital and Alex Salmond in Scotland - two powerful figures pushing their particular agendas would, he said, drown out localities which lacked a similarly powerful voice.

Lord Adonis, the IFG's boss and former Labour Transport Secretary, argued that London would not have had the Olympics, or Crossrail - the multi-billion rail tunnel through the heart of the city - or its congestion charge system, without an elected mayor. The hard power over local services and the soft power to do deals, bang heads together and formulate a vision for the future could drive real change and economic growth outside London, he said. And he thought elected city mayors could drive real improvements in education, too.

Several MPs are known to be mulling a mayoral run - last year Peter Soulsby left the Commons to run as labour candidate for Mayor of Leicester, (Leicester decided to pre-empt the Localism Act and move straight to a mayoral system without passing "go"). In Birmingham, Labour's Gisela Stuart is a declared candidate and the former Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, is being tipped to run for Mayor of Coventry. They're unlikely to be the last. And it wouldn't surprise me if other MPs found the job of Police Commissioner for their area preferable to backbench life. Former Welsh Secretary and First Minister Alun Micheal has been linked with the South Wales Force, as my colleague David Cornock reports. By the end of next year there may have been several by-elections caused by MPs leaving to take up one or another of these posts.

There was a certain amount of speculation at the IFG event about who would run for mayor of London in 2016. My guess (and this is no more than my speculation, based on no evidence whatsoever) is that the Conservative standard bearer might be Greg Hands and Labour's candidate might be David Lammy. The point being that two able, upwardly mobile MPs might, by then, see the mayoralty as a job which offered more scope than most ministerial posts.

There's much talk of the economy being rebalanced away from an unhealthy dependence on London… political power could soon be rebalanced in the same way - if voters in the big cities decide they want a mayor, when the referenda are held in May.

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