Why England's cities should say 'Yes' to elected mayors

Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Graham Godwin-Pearson, Chairman - Bristol West Conservatives

Tomorrow, there will be referenda in England's biggest cities to determine whether or not they will be able to directly elect city mayors. This is key to improving the economy and is the first step to re-engaging voters with politics.

The last Government removed powers from local communities and more and more of the country was run from quangos and a bloated Whitehall. As a result, one of the Conservative Party's key 2010 manifesto pledges was to 'make politics more local' - and in the metropolitan areas this is best achieved by giving voters the chance to directly elect a city mayor.

It's a system that works extremely well in the USA and other countries - and, while the powers of city mayors will be different, comparisons have been drawn with the successes of Boris Johnson's incumbency in London. When there's a major investment to be had, there's a single person to lead the charge; when there's a crisis, there's a single person to manage it. To facilitate this, the Prime Minister has pledged to provide city mayors with a voice in Westminster - regular meetings and the chance to promote the causes of cities in the highest circles. This will become a crucial tool when cities are competing for inward investment, major infrastructure projects and even lucrative sporting events.

The truth is that many voters don't know their local councillors, let alone council leaders.

The apathy for local politics has in part arisen from the lack of a direct link between voters and decision-making. Replacing this link will, in the future, help to re-engage people with the political process - not only can they choose who their mayor is themselves, but they know who to write to, who to stop on the street and who the person on the TV is, speaking up for them and their city.

Bristol, the most affluent city outside London, is one of those deciding whether or not have an elected mayor. Currently, the Leader of Bristol City Council is chosen by a handful of councillors having won her role by a single vote - only a tiny number of voters actually had a say in her election. Time and again, Bristol has lost out on the national stage in so many ways and weak leadership has left the city with poor transport, education well below national average and a lack of positive inward investment. A plan to build a tram across two local authorities within Bristol failed because of a lack of agreement - that was after millions had been spent on consultation. No company would consider entering such a process without strong leadership to drive the change and engender efficiency.

Polls for tomorrow's London mayoral election suggest that not only is Boris Johnson ahead of Ken Livingston, but that many Labour supporters will vote for him, based on his record of action and leadership, not because of his Party colours.

The election isn't so much about politics, as leadership. Without leadership, how can we end the waste and bureaucracy that has become endemic in our big cities and free them to compete on an international stage?