Liverpool’s missed opportunity

The chief executive and group chairman of Downtown in Business offers his thoughts on local government reform in Liverpool, as the city council consults with its residents to ask what the governance model of the future should look like.
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The people of Liverpool are being consulted about how their city should be governed in the future – most critically do we support the continuation of the position of an elected mayor.

Downtown in Business was one of the most vociferous advocates of creating an elected mayor in the city in the early noughties. Back then, a Liberal Democrat administration, led first by Mike Storey and then Warren Bradley, had started to run out of ideas and steam, having delivered some transformational initiatives, including the European capital of culture 2008 bid, and the major retail-led regeneration scheme, Liverpool ONE.

But it wasn’t simply the faltering ruling administration that led DIB to conclude that an elected mayor would be good for Liverpool. The place was being overrun by QUANGOS, had a culture of ‘passing the buck’, and was in desperate need of a figurehead who could lead and galvanise the opportunities that were about to come Liverpool’s way.

Our campaign for a mayor was successful by default. In 2012, the government offered the city a significant pot of cash if it moved from a leader/cabinet governance structure to a mayoral model.

For a local authority that was one of the hardest hit budgetary-wise from the George Osborne ‘austerity’ years, it was an offer that was too good to turn down.

Understandable though that was, in retrospect a more robust consultation at the time – perhaps even a referendum – may have seen the move met with more enthusiasm, and maybe implemented in a way that was more genuinely in line with what a city mayoral office can bring.

Instead, the motivation to do the deal was mostly, if not entirely, all about the money. In practical terms, this meant that the council leader simply changed his badge to mayor – and in truth the opportunities that could have been implemented never were.

A council leader should have been elected, to deal with the day-to-day running of the authority, allowing the mayor to get on with the strategic challenges that faced – and still face – the city.

A separate mayoral office, detached from the council and the Cunard Building, ought to have been established, with a focus on new thinking, new ideas, attracting investment, and delivering the many regeneration projects that have sadly never come to fruition – or maybe even scrapping some of those that have been promised for a lifetime, but are never likely to come off (the Garden Festival site, anyone?).

More crucially, the mayor should have utilised his new powers to appoint a chief of staff (removing the chief executive from mayoral supervision), and create a cabinet drawn from across the whole community, not just the Labour group. Business leaders, the third sector representatives, and community champions should have been appointed – and even those from other parties given a chance to contribute to a more inclusive way of governing.

In the opening months, there were some encouraging signs. Downtown’s David Wade Smith was asked to advise on business. Phil Redmond was appointed culture champion. Independent mayoral candidate Liam Fogarty was given a role.

But, as time marched on, there was an increasing sense that the only difference between a council leader and the mayor was the badge.

External appointments dried up and the opportunity to adopt a more pluralistic approach to Liverpool’s politics was extinguished as senior Labour politicians in the city fell out, and the hard left activists within Labour branches demanded a more partisan approach from the mayor and councillors.

It would be fantasy to suggest that mayor Joe Anderson failed to take any advantage of the new-found powers that he was given by the government. Mayoral Enterprise Zones were a cracking initiative, as we see from the success of the Knowledge Quarter, which was Anderson’s baby.

It was also refreshing to have a situation where everyone knew where the buck stopped, having lived through a period when you got bounced from quango to quango when things like the Everton King’s Dock stadium, the fourth grace, or the tram ended up crashing and burning.  

And, on the international stage, a mayor is often seen as a more recognisable and influential figure than a leader.

But controversies aside, the failure to implement a much more dynamic, modern, and innovative way of governance, which the mayoral model offered us, is something that should be lamented.

The new mayor, Joanne Anderson, was elected on a manifesto promise that she would campaign to scrap the role. Having done the job for twelve months, I wonder if that is still how she feels?

To be fair, a combination of her own personal inexperience of local government leadership, and the fact that government commissioners are overseeing many of the major decisions that are taking place at the Town Hall, inevitably meant that the new mayor would find it difficult to make a mark. 

The mayoral post in Liverpool will now go, I’m sure. But I’m even more certain that we never really had a mayor in the truest sense of the word. And, in twenty years’ time, someone will be campaigning to re-establish the role! 

Hopefully, we’ll make a better fist of it next time around.

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