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Blog by Ben Lucas, 2020 Public Services Hub at the RSA

The latest polling figures in London provide strong support for the idea of elected Mayors, with a clear differential emerging between the standing of candidates and their parties. Boris Johnson is outperforming support for the Conservatives by a factor of plus 10%, whilst Ken Livingstone is lagging behind Labour's poll rating by 3 % (the reverse of what's happened in the past, when Ken has outperformed Labour's vote). This shows that voters are making a judgement about the mayoral candidates and not just the national standing of their parties.

They can use their visibility, clout and executive authority to drive five key changes that could help revitalise our urban public realm

One of the strongest arguments for Mayors was that their visibility, linked to people's judgement about their qualities would help to counterbalance the tendency for local elections to be little more than a snapshot of the popularity of central government. In local elections, where the main parties are fairly evenly matched, it has often been national rather than local issues which have been the deciding factor. As a result, perfectly good Conservative, Liberal Democrat and labour councils have lost power not because of their record but as a verdict on national government. This has been bad for local government and has helped to undermine its authority and standing.

A key argument for Mayors is that they will provide a focal point for debate about the future of cities and so help counteract the damaging bias towards centralism in our political system. As I argued in a recent booklet published by the Institute of Government on Elected Mayors, the international experience underlines the extent that the best Mayors combine a deep understanding of their place with a far from parochial vision of how their cities need to change. It is the ability to be of a city without being captured by its vested interests which sets the most effective Mayors apart. Cities as varied as Barcelona, Paris, Chicago and London have been led by Mayors with leadership qualities at least as strong as those displayed by national leaders.

It is reassuring that the London experience appears to show that the quality of the candidate will be a key factor in who wins

As the latest gloomy economic news underlines, the scale of the challenges facing English cities are so great that they demand new responses. The good news is that there is a growing recognition within the political and public policy world that cities have the critical mass to shape their own destinies. Directly elected Mayors for our cities outside London will have the advantage of being entirely new political developments, with the mandate and legitimacy to construct a new account of what local governance is for. Their opportunity is to transcend the path dependency of much of local government and develop a new approach to galvanising and catalysing social productivity through the public realm. They have the potential to provide a disruptive and innovative effect on local government, changing old ways of thinking and taking advantage of new opportunities to transform their cities.

They can use their visibility, clout and executive authority to drive five key changes that could help revitalise our urban public realm:

  • Providing a new focus for democratic engagement through open data and social media, at time when an unprecedented local daily newspapers are going weekly or, worse still, closing. (See, for example, the recent announcement by the Johnston media group of the closure of five local daily newspapers in England Johnston press yorkshire closures)
  • Catalysing social collaboration, not only in the form of social action but also through the creation of shared spaces in which local entrepreneurs, activists, civic and community leaders can come together to generate new social solution to local challenges.
  • Enabling, through their soft leadership skills, the development of networked local governance to join up increasingly pluralised local public services and institutions so that they are collectively responding to locally shaped priorities, rather than national diktats
  • Creating a new understanding of the social and economic analytics of their cities, which enable them to go beyond deficit models in terms of local communities and instead understand the assets they can build on
  • Building a platform for economic and social productivity which is based on a clear understanding of the role that the local state can play in creating the conditions for entrepreneurship and growth.
  • Following the May referendums, many of our cities are likely to see hotly contested Mayoral elections. At the centre of the debate will be the question of how Mayors can help make their cities more productive and resilient. It is reassuring that the London experience appears to show that the quality of the candidate will be a key factor in who wins. This may also help encourage high calibre people to put themselves forward, with a wider range of experience than the Westminster treadmill can provide.

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