The Centre for Cities and the Institute for Government have together recently produced a new document “Big Shot or Long Shot? How elected mayors can help drive economic growth in England’s cities”. The report highlights a number of areas where government is failing us and it is full of good ideas to make improvements. However, they base their solutions on two ideas that are not good and in the longer term will be damaging: electing mayors and using cities for area wide policies.
Britain has a long tradition of separating the ceremonial from power: we have a head of state and a head of government – Queen and Prime Minister, Sheriff and Leader; Mayor and Leader. The former in each case represents the country, the county or the city – opening new schools and bridges, giving awards – and the latter run the government. We defer to the Queen, the Sheriff or the Mayor as the embodiment of our country, our county or our city. We can engage politically with the political leader.
In America they have the head of state and the head of government as one person. It was quite a good idea 200 years ago but it means that the person who represents America to the world is also the person running the executive. This creates a conflict of role (one of the reasons that in another sphere good practice separates the chair of a company from the chief executive).
So on this basis the ceremonial head of a country, county or city should be separate from the head of the government. The is very little reason for electing a head of state – the Queen is not elected – but I am not against doing so as long as the role is limited to the ceremonial.
Regardless of electing mayors, should the city be the basis of government locally? Well frankly no. Take the city of Birmingham – the largest city in Britain at one million people. It is far too big to be in touch with local needs. Yet at the same time it is too small to develop comprehensive policies for such areas as transport. Other cities are entirely surrounded by other local governments: Leicester and Nottingham which are counties in their own right are separated from their hinterland by the counties of Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire respectively. The present position is so confusing that many people do not know who governs what or even what county they live in.
We need to get back to the simple and understandable situation where people are governed by their local parish (village, town, borough, city) for the very local aspects of life and by their county for the aspects of life that need a wider geographical consideration like transport, economics, health and education.