Do we need our own Boris?

IPPR North, devolution and localism, economy, public services, regional issues, UK politics

Author(s):  Lewis Goodall
Published date:  10 Apr 2012
Source:  The Journal
In the 19th Century, it was local government that were the great engines of progress in British national life: it was the cities, the Birminghams, the Manchesters, the Newcastles and those that led their municipal councils that were, in Churchill’s phrase, institutions and men that ‘made the weather.’
Alas, today, in the eyes of the public at least, local government no longer does that. To many it seems less able to fight its citizens’ corner.  This is why the upcoming mayoral referenda is so welcome. We need a debate in this country and this city about how we want English local government to look and feel.

This is not to undermine the stellar work that goes on through and by councils up and down the land: they can still be centres of new thinking and innovation. But, their efforts have been undermined by successive governments who have stripped them of powers and their own self-confidence.  As a result local government has diminished in the minds of too many voters.

This is a huge problem. We live in the most politically centralised country in the developed world. Often this means that the North is unable to respond to the opportunities and challenges of its citizens. This is not helped by the fact that public spending continues to be disproportionately directed to London and the South East.  IPPR North research, for example, has shown that while the government plans to spend £2,700 per head on upcoming infrastructure projects in London and the South East, it plans only to spend just £5 a head in the North East. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson argues for yet more and more public money to be pumped into the capital.  Our local government, as presently constituted, seems unable to provide the counterbalance we desperately need on the national stage. 

In other parts of the country, we see the positive effects strong, empowered more localised government can have: in Scotland to our North, in London to our South.

Northern voters now need to weigh up whether mayors can deliver this for our major cities.  There are great things to be said about mayors: They increase accountability through visibility and enhance the ability of cities and regions to fight their corner with central government: in any other country in Europe or the United States, the leaders of major cities like Newcastle, Manchester or Birmingham would cut major figures on the national stage. Realistically, how many people outside of these cities have heard of their leaders? Boris and Ken, on the other hand are instantly recognisable by their first names along.  For better or for worse they have major profile and bang the drum for London - and we never stop hearing about it! 

To really counterbalance the power of London, mayors need to have real powers to forge the destiny of their area.  Over time, this might mean a move towards a metro mayor for the wider city area - not just Newcastle but the  surrounding conurbation too - with powers over economic development and transport. 

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  In the first instance it is imperative that there is a frank and urgent debate about the merits or otherwise of mayors to ensure as many people as possible are aware of the upcoming referendum and participate in it.  To help foster the debate, IPPR North has joined forces with the Yes and No campaigns in Newcastle and is hosting a debate on the issue on Tuesday 17th April at 6.30pm at the City Library. We will be joined by former Cabinet Minister Lord Andrew Adonis and former Leader of Newcastle City Council Lord Jeremy Beecham to hear both sides of the arguments. We very much hope you can join us.