An Optimism of Mayors

What is the collective noun for Mayors, you might be wondering? OK, you probably weren’t. Anyway, it’s not a Chain (that’s the civic bunch), but an Optimism. Yes, an Optimism of Mayors, writes Kevin Johnson. 

If you were at the UK-International Metro Mayors Summit yesterday, the defining characteristic you would have identified would indeed have been optimism.

The principal job of these Mayors, they might tell you – the six new Metro Mayors of the UK and five city mayors from Stateside – is being positive, transformative and acting as the ‘change maker’ for their places.

If we’re talking optimism and Mayors, you might imagine our own Mayor Street would have been centre stage. Not so. He was detained in the region on Commonwealth Games business, even though he was the first of the UK Mayors to sign up to the Summit.

The other Mayor Andy – Burnham of Greater Manchester – was also detained at base as he prepared to respond to the intelligence review on the Manchester Arena attack.

But Mayor Burnham did make the Summit just in time to contribute to a discussion on the resilience and response of metro leaders to major events, including terrorist attacks.

One US Mayor had earlier remarked that the responses of Mayors Burnham and Khan to tragic events in their cities had been something of an advertisement for devolution. Their well-judged remarks were in contrast to the muddled and disconnected comments of national leaders.

As US Mayors tried to forget the Trump effect and their UK counterparts pushed Brexit to the back of their minds, the energy and answers to many of the challenges for which national government does not seem to have bandwidth appear to be coming from Mayors. Think climate change, air quality, homelessness, mental health and refugees to name just some.

If you are a champion of Mayors and their potential, as the Chamberlain Files unashamedly is, then yesterday was something of a love in for Mayors and us devolutionists.

But the Mayors – supported by Summit partners Citi, Boston University, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Arup and the University of Warwick, made a compelling case for Mayors.

The hard powers of Mayors, especially this side of the Atlantic, are limited to say the least. As one mayoral advocate remarked, for all the fanfare there was not really that much in Andy Street’s Devo Deal II last week.

But Mayors have significant soft, or convening, powers. As the US office holders remarked, Mayors should not worry about where their hard powers end.

Citizens come to them with their problems and expect Mayors to act as local or regional leaders regardless. Sometimes, apparently, that might even include requests to resolve marital problems!

As one UK delegate at the Summit said, Mayors need to start with the idea that everything in their area is their responsibility.

UK Mayors seem to agree that they need to continue pushing for powers and fiscal devolution, but they should also seek to lead in areas where they have no formal powers.

Business Secretary Greg Clark, who was rightly praised as the unfailing champion of Mayors and devolution in Government, addressed a closed session of the Summit. But Chamberlain Files is probably at liberty to say we should not expect serious fiscal devolution anytime soon.

The ‘deal’ approach to devolution seems set to stay for the foreseeable future.

US Mayors argued that people know and trust their Mayors in a way that does not necessarily follow for their state or federal representatives.

People and organisations want to engage with a leader. Mayors are now a voice which national Governments and businesses cannot ignore.

Steve Rotheram, Mayor of Liverpool City Region and a former Labour MP, told the opening public session of the Summit that whilst powers are limited, the potential for change in a place led by a Mayor was in stark contrast to the glacial pace of change he experienced at Westminster.

Ben Houchen, Mayor of Tees Valley, said he had been surprised by the goodwill he had experienced since his election, even though the Metro Mayor concept was in its infancy and does not yet enjoy overwhelming support.

Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of think tank Centre for Cities which organised the Summit, reflected on the common approach of US and UK Mayors:

  • Deep optimism
  • Very pragmatic
  • Passion and enthusiasm
  • Inclusive
  • Values-led.

During the course of the Summit, Mayors agreed they could offer leadership of place (rather than management of a council) and a strong voice; foster innovation and offer more agile solutions than national Government; encourage collaboration and use covening powers across a wide range of issues.

Mayor Street, who has been uncharacteristically critical of Government on skills, might look to his US counterparts who have taken on local school boards and others to begin to exert an influence in addressing education challenges.

Walk into a room of political leaders or public service bosses these days and it’s not long before data crops up. Mayor Street has made digital a priority sector – the “golden thread” in the modern economy – as well as commitments to open data and data analytics in the second devolution deal.

But from yesterday’s Summit, it was not entirely clear to what degree the WMCA had engaged with research from the Mayors Data Studio at Johns Hopkins University.

As this Mayoral gathering again highlighted, party differences seem to play no part among the new UK Mayors.

Jorge Elorza, Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island told a reception at City Hall last night that Mayors are not ideologues, but problem solvers.

In the US, he remarked, it is said there are three political parties.

In the UK, he suggested, there is already evidence of a similar three party system – Conservatives, Labour…and Mayors.

The Metro Mayor experiment is still in its early days with many electors, politicians and civil servants yet to be convinced.

But in the face of political division and challenges at seemingly every turn, the UK’s Metro Mayors have an opportunity develop policy solutions in spaces where national Government cannot or are not leading. They can bring parts of the country together, as the three northern Metro Mayors are already doing.

Mayor Rotheram suggested the M7 Group was born yesterday – the six new Metro Mayors plus the Mayor of London.

Mayors can begin to reset politics and re-balance the economy.

They face enormous challenges, such as trying to wrestle some power from the Department for Education (DfE) over education and skills policy.

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