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
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

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.”