Arguments rage in countdown to mayoral polls

IT was back in the summer of 2007 when that veteran of urban regeneration, Lord Heseltine, published his report for the Conservative Party on how best to revive England’s cities.

The country can perhaps be forgiven if it failed to take a great deal of notice at the time.

Gordon Brown was two weeks away from taking over as Prime Minister and the Conservatives, a decade out of power, still looked a long way from government.

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But David Cameron was playing close attention to the work of a party grandee for whom he has the greatest admiration – and five years on, the Conservative leader is putting Lord Heseltine’s ideas into action.

The peer’s vision was to re-energise regional cities by putting powerful, directly-elected mayors at their helm, with sizeable budgets and devolved powers over transport, regeneration and the local economy.

And so it is that this coming Thursday voters in 10 of England’s largest cities will be asked to decide whether this system should govern their city for the generations to come.

Originally it was supposed to be 12, but two – Liverpool and Leicester – have gone ahead and brought the system in without a vote.

In a speech on Monday, Mr Cameron spoke of an “historic moment”, calling on voters to grasp the opportunity to have their own “swashbuckling” mayor to lobby for funding and investment – a powerful first point of contact for international trade.

His Minister for Cities, Greg Clark, is confident of the benefits such a figure would bring to Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Wakefield.

“I think cities outside London have had too quiet a voice in our national affairs, and I think that’s particularly true of the Yorkshire cities,” he says, pointing out many citizens currently cannot name the leader of their own council.

“It helps to know who you’re voting for, and who your leader is.

“If people in the city don’t know who speaks on behalf of the city, how can you expect to be known nationally or internationally?”

Mr Clark insists directly-elected mayors are now the norm in major cities across the world and that multi-national businesses expect to be able to deal with a single, powerful figure.

He describes how “the penny dropped” for the Labour leader of Liverpool Council, Joe Anderson, when he was at an international conference lobbying for trade for his city and Chinese officials kept asking him why a council official had been sent from Liverpool instead of the city’s mayor.

“If you don’t keep up with the pack then you are left behind,” Mr Clark says. “We are competing in international markets for investment and if Leeds doesn’t have a strong voice people associate with the city, then other cities will. And Leeds will be overhauled.”

But it is not just abroad that the new breed of mayors will be lobbying for their city.

It is also within Whitehall.

Mr Clark and Mr Cameron continue to drop heavy hints that extra powers will be available to those cities who bring in elected mayors – but have faced criticism from council leaders for not being explicit about what is on offer.

Mr Clark is scathing in his response. “If you ask the same question in London, Boris Johnson tells you want powers he wants,” he says. “The lack of ambition of some of our cities, to wait for the Government! To say, what powers would you be graciously pleased to allow us to take on? That is not the approach!

“I tell you, Boris Johnson roars into Whitehall, bellows at everyone and says ‘these are the powers that I want to have, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t have them.’ And he gets them. That’s what should happen.”

The Government is understandably keen to point to the example of London as how the introduction of a directly-elected mayor can transform a city.

But some politicians in Yorkshire do not believe the system will sit so easily with local political realities.

Kris Hopkins, the Conservative MP for Keighley and Ilkley, is vehemently opposed to the idea of an all-powerful Mayor of Bradford governing his local towns.

“We need to have the ability to shape our own destiny, not be told what to do by someone from Bradford sitting in an ivory tour half an hour down the road,” he said. “We must make clear that a Bradford-based elected mayor – which is almost too appalling for words – is not for us.”

Others complain the policy does not go far enough.

Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers wants to know why Yorkshire’s four largest cities should have the benefits of elected mayors, but not others such as Hull and York – or smaller towns such as Huddersfield, Barnsley or his own.

“We cannot wait for local authorities themselves to decide whether to opt for an elected mayor as, with perhaps a few rare exceptions, they will not,” he told MPs during a Westminster debate this week. “We need to break down the existing cosy arrangements.”

But Mr Clark is very clear that this week’s votes in 10 large cities will only be the start.

“I think other cities after the first wave may have referendums and want to join the club,” he says. “We have to be frank about this – you need to run to keep up. If you sit on the sub’s bench and don’t compete, then you’re going to be left out of the game.”