We need a ‘metro mayor’ to energise us – but who?
I'm a bit envious of Londoners. Not because I yearn after the city of my birth, much as I love it; I'm also envious of the people of Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.
Next month the citizens of these ten fine and not so fine cities get to vote on whether or not they would like to have a mayor. That's a proper mayor like the capital's Boris or Ken. A mayor with clout. Not a Buggins' turn, processional coach, chocolate coin chain, funny hat and ermine mayor. A mayor who can make a difference; improve the lot of people around here with a passion.
We should have one.
On Monday, the Warwick Commission report – the result of an investigation by Warwick University into what elected mayors around the world do – was published. It had studied their role in providing strategic leadership. While observing there was not necessarily any countrywide panacea for council leadership, it favoured what are termed 'metro mayors'. That is mayors with powers extending beyond city boundaries in order to, for instance, foster economic growth. They were more likely to be effective, suggested the Commission. In these here parts that would give a mayor the remit to, dare I say it, put a welcome bit of Norwich City Hall boot on Norfolk County Hall foot.
Professor Keith Grint, who directed the research at Warwick, points to the low turnout in local elections, observes that 'we seem to have a very demobilised electorate; a general apathy among many people,' and reports on the belief of the 42 elected mayors and council staff his team interviewed in the UK, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, that 'you can make a difference and you can engage the public in quite different ways'.
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He concluded that now might be time for trying something new by 'thinking about a different system that may give you the impetus to do something different and do something about your local problems'.
I don't reckon you can argue with that although I have little doubt that a wagonload of well-paid council officials and coterie of well-meaning, word-in-your-ear councillors of varying competence will.
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How cleansing would it be to clear away a system of local politics dominated by committees where no individual seems to be accountable to the public for anything? How much better to be given the opportunity to choose between clearly stated mayoral manifestos that, as the professor says, having been voted upon by a freshly energised electorate, give mayors a direct mandate for the population. A four-year term would let them get on with getting things done while exercising, through the democratic process, the right level of scrutiny to keep their powers in check.
I'm well aware that neither Boris nor Ken is everyone's cup of tea but there is no doubting the passion of both for London and Londoners. Ensconced in our own hallowed council circles, who might you name or nominate with a similarly passionate profile around here?
Who, in place of on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that prevarication, bats firmly on one side or the other for either better public transport or more parking? For more affordable housing or less and where and where not?
For and against waste incineration, wind power or permits for migrant workers? The choice between bendy buses and double-deckers doesn't trouble us too much but who would, as is necessary in London, work to end Norwich's overreliance on financial services – in our case insurance – and champion bioscience, engineering, innovation and creativity?
There could never be an ideal all things to all people candidate; we, the electorate, would have to decide who, on balance, best represented our best interests. The best thing would be that would-be elected mayors would need to explain why their position on everything was in the best interests of Norwich, Norfolk and its people.
When they failed to come up with the goods, we could point to their promises (assuming we didn't elect a Liberal Democrat) and, at the next election, poke them in the political eye.
So who might we conjure up for our mayoral candidate? Writing recently on the subject, the once famously white-suited, white knight, son of Suffolk soil and one time independent MP for Tatton Martin Bell hoped that well-respected local figures, previously outside mainstream politics, might put themselves up.
I fear that 'well-respected local figures' would mean 'the usual suspects' or, as some might have it, the renowned 'Norfolk mafia'.
Bell fears that an old guard of ex and sitting MPs, 'and various other retreads' would seek office, heralding 'the return of the living dead'.
Unfortunately, as we will not be voting on the prospect of voting for our own mayor on May 3, we can only speculate as to who the candidates might be and the nature of their causes although I would welcome your thoughts.
As for my pitch, I promise not to use the f word when calling my adversary a liar and fully expect to have to face a 'Not Ken Again' poster campaign. I will not, however, attempt to hide the presence of a Great White making a meal of surfers off Cromer beach just to placate tourist industry bosses.