A FEW weeks ago, Boris Johnson and former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine were brought together on a London stage to extol the virtues of elected mayors.
As incumbent London Mayor, a post which has helped him become one of the nation’s best known politicians, Boris is a natural enthusiast.
And so is Lord Heseltine. His political career may be behind him, but he has long championed the case for elected mayors and was a key figure in David Cameron pledging referenda on the issue in England’s 12 largest cities which will see voters in Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Wakefield asked whether they want one this May.
The event, in the capital’s City Hall, the egg-shaped glass office block which is home to the London Mayor and overlooks the Thames, was hosted by former Labour cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, another arch advocate of the idea. Lord Adonis, the former Transport Secretary who championed high-speed rail, asked the invited audience of a couple of hundred people – educated, intelligent and with an interest in the issue – whether they could name the leaders of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester councils. Two, maybe three, hands went into the air. It illustrated his point perfectly.
While London has its corner fought by a man known around the country by his first name and while the SNP’s Alex Salmond packs a considerable punch from Scotland, England’s great cities risk being drowned out.
That’s why Adonis, Johnson and Heseltine are right – and why I believe voters in Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Wakefield would be best served by backing the idea of an elected mayor when they go to the polls. This is not a criticism of the leadership of those councils at the moment, but of the way they are hamstrung by the current system.
All four cities have seen great improvements in recent times – the centres of Leeds and Sheffield in particular have been transformed in the past 15 years.
That said, Bradford remains scarred by a big hole in the city centre where regeneration schemes have stumbled and congestion remains a major issue for Leeds because of the failure to deliver first Supertram and now trolleybuses, with a decision on the latter again delayed by the Government.
Particularly a time when council budgets are under immense strain, the drive, leadership and profile of an elected mayor – accountable at the ballot box every four years – is needed to get things done.
Not that you’ll find many local politicians keen on the idea. It’s little surprise there is little warmth for the idea among those currently in Yorkshire’s town halls, given existing councillors stand to lose power if an elected mayor is installed.
And it’s true that elected mayors have not been effective everywhere – voters in Stoke decided to get rid of theirs altogether and Doncaster’s history is chequered at best.
But set aside those arguments – and don’t get swept along by anyone throwing in the election of a monkey mascot in Hartlepool as Stuart Drummond has gone on to be re-elected twice and made a success of the job in his own right – and look at what a mayor could do.
When you’re wanting to do deals with central government personal relationships matter, whether with civil servants or Ministers. And you are far more likely to be able to do this as an elected mayor with a direct mandate from the people for four years than as a council leader who risks losing control of the council or being toppled by their party each year.
In Leeds, civil servants must be dizzy from dealing with three different council leaders in little over two years, thanks to the bizarre six-monthly rotation of the top job between Tories and Liberal Democrats before Labour took control in 2010.
Being a successful Mayor is all about having a vision and getting it delivered, having the power and the will to bring the right people together to get things done.
Take London’s “Boris Bikes”, a network of more than 4,000 cycles which can be hired at the swipe of a credit card from hundreds of stations around the city. The bikes were used more than eight million times in little over 12 months after being introduced in 2010, popular with tourists and commuters alike.
In Leeds, a similar idea was discussed years before but never got off the ground. In London, it happened because it was the Mayor’s idea and he made sure it did. In the same way Ken Livingstone showed leadership in introducing the congestion charge in central London, an idea most councils would run a mile from but which held back traffic levels and raised money for other transport projects and did not stop him being re-elected in 2004.
Sceptics will say that the real problem has been the stranglehold Whitehall has held over councils, and that the Government’s promise to hand down more decision-making powers plans will allow them to deliver without needing a mayor.
But if the promise of powers – such as controlling transport and skills funding – is to make a real difference, it needs the leadership and status of an elected mayor to make the most of the opportunity. To be bold and decisive rather than fall victim to town hall caution. To stake their political future on seeing through the regeneration of the centre of Bradford or delivering trolleybuses to the streets of Leeds. To become a 21st century Joseph Chamberlain, the much-lauded reforming Mayor who swept away Birmingham’s slums in the 19th century.
And above all, to make sure Yorkshire’s great cities are put firmly on the map so that more than two people in an educated audience of 200 movers and shakers knows who they are.
• Jonathan Reed is the Yorkshire Post’s political editor.
THE HISTORY OF ELECTED MAYORS
LONDON: Love them or hate them, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have made the London mayoralty a success. The former helped London win the Olympics while his successor has proved adept at championing transport.
NEW YORK: Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani both have international profiles and achieved high approval ratings.
HARTLEPOOL: The twice-elected Stuart Drummond managed to get the Tall Ships race to Hartlepool, launched Operation Cleansweep which regular blitzes part of the town and has led a high-profile campaign to demolish derelict buildings, or bring them back into use.
DONCASTER: A chequered history. The first Labour Mayor Martin Winter ended up governing as an independent while his successor, the English democrat Peter Davies, is no less controversial.
STOKE: Voters in Stoke decided to ditch their elected mayor in 2008 and return to a traditional set-up of a council leader working with a cabinet.
LEICESTER: The biggest English city outside London to install an elected mayor, former council leader and MP Sir Peter Soulsby became the first holder of the post last year. The jury is still out.