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Ben Stevenson: A Mayor for Liverpool?

Ben Stevenson uses the situation in Liverpool to make the case for city mayors.

2008 is Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture. Many good things have come out of this year for Liverpool. The city has reportedly had a 25% increase in tourism compared to 2007 – with about three million people having visited events or venues in the city by mid May. Liverpool now has a new 10,600-seater arena (a possible venue for a future party conference?), which was recently opened by the Queen. This week has seen the opening of Liverpool One – a £1 billion development built by the Duke of Westminster's Grosvenor Estate, which was visited by 200,000 people on its opening day. Also noteworthy this week has been Sir Paul McCartney's Liverpool Sound concert, which drew a 36,000 sell-out crowd. This concert is just one of a huge number of events that have taken place this year, and also in the years leading up to 2008.

So there is much for me to be pleased about as someone from Liverpool, and doubtless Liverpool City Council deserve some of the credit for many of the good things happening in Liverpool. However, the Council has also had its fair share of negative publicity recently. The Audit Commission recently accused Liverpool City Council of being the worst council in the country for financial management. In 2007, the Mathew Street Festival – the largest annual free music festival in Europe – was cancelled. The 2005 festival brought an estimated £32 million into the region, so the cancellation in 2007 was obviously costly for the city. There seems to be a problem of identifying who is directly responsible for the late cancellation. Ongoing disputes between councillors and the former chief executive of the Liverpool Culture Company, and accusations of bullying have resulted in councilors being investigated by the Standards Board for England.

The council's recent problems have fed calls for reform of the council, and a directly elected mayor. Liam Fogarty is the chair of the non-party political campaign for a directly elected mayor for Liverpool. On his campaign website he says:

“Time and again Liverpool's politicians, officials and appointees go missing when they should be taking responsibility. Liverpool desperately needs accountable and visible city leadership, the sort only an elected Mayor can provide.”

He also writes:

“Electing a Mayor for Liverpool would revive interest, attract quality candidates, spark a real debate and give us the clear, accountable leadership our city needs. Today Independent Mayors in Middlesbrough, Mansfield and Bedford were all re-elected. Voters were able to see how they'd led their communities and pass judgement directly at the ballot box.”

Liam Fogarty's view that an elected mayor could give clearer accountability to the local electorate is, it seems shared by Michael Heseltine's Cities Taskforce. The Cities Taskforce notes how a lack of clear accountability structures can be a problem in local government:

“Local Government, in its emasculated form, no longer has the powers to exercise leadership. There are so many other bodies now involved that it is completely unclear who is in charge. For example, there are over 50 different funding streams for social exclusion, housing and regeneration5. A regeneration landscape in which it is not clear who is in charge is a recipe for inertia and buck-passing.”

Liverpool's experience following the 2007 Mathew Street Festival is one example of this. Undoubtedly similar sorts of problems exist across the country.

The Cities Taskforce proposes elected mayors as a way of empowering local government, and improving democratic accountability, and agrees with Liam Fogarty's view that an elected mayor could help attract the best candidates to local government.

“...There should be a clear and simple structure, so that everyone knows who is in charge and who is responsible

If Local Government is charged with leading the renaissance of our Cities, they must be able to attract consistently people of the highest calibre into leadership roles...”

“...In order to create dynamic local leadership and to attract high calibre individuals, we believe that directly elected Executive Mayors for top-tier authorities is the best Governance model....”

The recent London Mayoral Elections may be a positive example of how elected mayors can help local democracy. The Boris vs Ken election received a large amount of media coverage – which probably resulted in voters being better informed about the differences between the candidates than in many local elections. One advantage of this may be higher voter turnout. The London Mayoral election had a 45.33% turnout in 2008 and 36.95% in 2004. Both elections compare favourably to 35.76% in Leeds City Council 2008 elections, and 27.48% in 2007 Liverpool City Council elections. This suggests to me that Liam Fogarty and the A Mayor For Liverpool campaign are right to think that directly elected mayors could help revive interest in local democracy.

Given its large population, and economic importance, it is inevitable that London will be given more attention than other cities. However, I suspect that an elected mayor of place like Liverpool, Manchester, or Leeds, would also be a high profile role – which would help attract suitably high quality candidates, increase media interest, and potentially be good testing for future roles in national politics.

Liverpool has no Conservative MPs or councilors – and therefore I suspect the party would not win mayoral elections in the city in the immediate future. Nevertheless, given the party's commitment to localism, and the potential advantages of elected mayor (clearer accountability to the electorate, and resulting increased turnout), it may be worth supporting campaigns for elected mayors both in Liverpool, but also in other cities nationwide.

As David Cameron said in his 2007 party conference speech:

“I believe it's time in our big cities for elected mayors so people have one person to blame if it goes wrong and to praise if it goes right ... I think it's time with local government to tear up rules and all the ring fencing and the auditing and actually say to our local councils, it's your money, spend it as you choose and get judged in the ballot box by people that you serve.”


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