In the four years I served as a local councillor, and during the past 18 months as a member of parliament, I have consistently avoided questions of local government reorganisation. Here’s why: I’ve always found that it’s not structures that matter, it’s leaders. I found the debate on mayor versus leader and cabinet models of local governance pretty dry, and I suspect I’m not the only one.
Much more important than models of governance are the following questions. Why don’t more councils take a lead on economic regeneration? Worklessness clusters in localities, but it’s always central government that holds the power over labour market tools. Only UK Trade & Investment, a Whitehall institution, is now charged with driving inward investment, not cities. Culture and tourism are at the heart of a city’s future possibilities, but national government funds large arts organisations, and now dictates the terms of visitor marketing.
Where local authorities have great leaders, they work behind the scenes to deal with these realities. The fragmented nature of powers and funding for cities and localities makes life hard. But they cooperate, work in partnership, and try to make the best possible of a situation that can often pit nearby council against council in fighting for funds or attention.
My home city of Liverpool is no exception. While many of my Wirral constituents work in the city and travel on our Merseyside-wide transport system every day, the local papers are constantly looking for cross-river battles, that see authority versus authority. This makes it hard to deal with the crucial questions above, where the slightest difference is made out to be a fight across the Mersey.
Thank goodness for Steve Foulkes and Joe Anderson, leaders of Wirral and Liverpool respectively. Along with the other leaders of the Merseyside councils they’ve worked consistently, together, to move forward on the Liverpool city region’s plans for economic regeneration, improving the reputation and inward investment in the whole city, towns and suburbs around it.
But I’m left with a question. Lord Adonis, now of the Institute for Government, came to Liverpool in February 2011. He stood on the beautiful staircase at the town hall, where I was lucky enough to be married. He asked us whether life wouldn’t be easier if we had an elected mayor with a ‘stronger leadership position’. Would we be better off with an internationally recognised city-region wide mayor who could go out to bat for us on the global stage?
There are without doubt city-region wide issues that could benefit from good leadership. We’ve waited too long for Merseyside-style Oyster smart cards for our commuters, delivered for Londoners quite some time ago. The economic footprint of one council alone is not enough to demand attention from businesses that will drive growth, especially when competitor cities in Europe will have powerful elected champions. So I wonder if there could be a structural issue after all. Perhaps it’s time we gave our leaders the power to lead?
Alison McGovern is MP for Wirral Smith
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