Greg Clark MP for Tunbridge Wells is Minister for Decentralisation and Cities. Follow Greg on Twitter.
Something significant happened last week, but because it didn’t happen in the Westminster village you may not have heard about it. Liverpool City Council voted to be run by a directly-elected mayor. By the end of this year, nearly all of England’s biggest cities could have directly-elected mayors – and if they do, it will be one of the most important of this Government’s legacies.
At present, decisions about how Liverpool is run, as with most of our largest cities, are taken by a “Cabinet”. But thanks to last week’s decision, the people of Liverpool will on the 3rd May choose for themselves a man or woman to lead their city. And on the same day, the Government is giving the people of Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield the chance to decide if they wish to follow suit. In many of these cities, there are already cross-party yes-campaigns in place and serious figures expressing an interest in putting their names forward. If local residents vote yes, elections for the new mayors will be held on 15thNovember, the same day as the elections for the first police commissioners.
As Conservatives, we should warmly welcome this resurgence in local democracy. One of this Government’s key missions is to loosen Whitehall’s grip, to disperse power throughout the country. No team of ministers or officials in London – no matter how bright or well-intentioned – can devise policies that fit the different circumstances of Newcastle and Bristol, of Nottingham and Manchester. We need to allow our communities to take charge of their own destinies.
One way of doing this is to reduce central government prescription, to cut back on the pages of rules and guidance that streamed out of Whitehall under the last Government. That is exactly what this Government is doing and will continue to do. However, a future Government could try to reverse this process. We should, therefore, aspire to a permanent shift of power in this country by establishing powerful local institutions that centralising bureaucrats cannot undermine.
Power doesn’t just come from an Act of Parliament giving a council permission to do something. Real political power comes from a direct democratic mandate.
If you’re reading this post you probably have a deeper knowledge about politics than most people. But ask yourself: do you know who the leader of Manchester is? Or the leaders of Bristol, Leeds or Newcastle?
The Mayor of London, on the other hand, is one of the best-known politicians in the country – as was his predecessor. Boris Johnson was elected by nearly 1.2 million people. That direct personal mandate gives the London Mayor the power to make things happen, from securing Crossrail to bringing in Boris bikes. The Mayor is a powerful voice for London – whether in negotiation with ministers (ask any one of them), in attracting international investment or as ambassador for projects like the Olympics. In short, the London experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one.
Of course, Birmingham, Manchester and our other cities aren’t the same as Greater London – their boundaries are more tightly drawn and they don’t therefore have borough councils underneath them. But the evidence of the benefits that flow from having a mayor doesn’t just come from London. Most of the world’s great cities have powerful, executive mayors. Birmingham is twinned with Chicago, Frankfurt, Milan and Lyons. Yet our second city is the only one not to have a mayor at the helm.
2012 is the year when our great cities will decide they want the same advantages. On 3rd May, Londoners decide who will lead our capital city in this, its Olympic summer. I hope they will re-elect Boris who has done an outstanding job. The people of Liverpool and Salford will elect their first Mayors. And the people of ten of our other great cities will have the chance to say whether or not they want to follow suit. If they do, more mayors will be elected in November. Our great cities should not be run as branch offices of central Government. It's time that Whitehall knew its place. Let’s make 2012 the year of local democracy.