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The case for Metro Mayors

Dermot Dermot Finch, the Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, wants more directly elected mayors - but only if they have teeth.

The Conservatives’ 2010 Manifesto should commit to a first wave of Metro Mayors in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Leeds city-region and Greater Birmingham. Not just single-council figureheads, but powerful leaders with a direct mandate from an entire metropolitan area.

Big city, metropolitan mayors would energise millions of voters, be highly visible and accountable, and have the authority to take tough decisions on local tax and spending.

David Cameron supports elected mayors. The Control Shift green paper already promises a mayoral referendum in 12 cities – including Manchester. This is a step in the right direction, and more than the
Lib Dems or Labour have offered.

But the current Conservative mayoral plan applies only to the individual local authority of, say, Manchester City Council. That would result in the rather odd situation of Manchester having its own mayor, but the other nine local authorities in Greater Manchester continuing as they are now. And it’s not yet clear exactly what new powers these mayors would have.

There’s not much point in single-council mayors with no real powers. The people of Manchester agree. Last week, they showed very little interest in having a Manchester City Council mayor. Only 3,000 people  (out of 200,000) responded to a local consultation – and 2,000 of them rejected the idea of an elected mayor.

This isn’t a surprise. Mancunians will only say yes to a mayor that has real tax and spend powers.

If the Conservatives go for a mayoral referendum, without offering significant new powers, they risk repeating the North East referendum fiasco in 2004. Four out of five people rejected the proposed NE Regional Assembly, because its powers were so weak.

Cities need more than a nominal figurehead. So the Conservatives should go further, and embrace Metro Mayors for Greater Manchester and other metropolitan areas.

Metro Mayors would be a tricky step for the Conservatives. The party would have to re-embrace the idea of elected metropolitan government, which it abandoned in the 1980s.  It would also need to win around its
10,000 incumbent councillors - many of whom hate the idea of elected mayors.

But Metro Mayors would be a bold and winning move. They provide a clear answer to the unfinished business of English devolution, a refreshing (and directly accountable) alternative to quangoland, and would help drive recovery across England’s major cities.

Metro Mayors would have real powers, including direct control over housing, transport and skills budgets – and the ability to raise (and reduce) business rates.  With a direct mandate from voters across a
number of councils that share the same metropolitan area, they would have real financial clout.

In the wake of the expenses debacle, the political case for mayors is now stronger than ever. Metro Mayors would trigger a higher turnout, as Boris did in London.  45% of Londoners voted in last year’s mayoral contest, compared to just 30% turnout for local elections across England.

Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London have all seen real devolution over the last decade. But England has been relatively short-changed. Metro Mayors would give real powers to England’s major cities – the powers they need to lead the recovery.

If the Conservative Party wants to win power, its first task in Government should be to give some away. Metro Mayors are part of the answer.


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