Liverpool will elect a new mayor on 5 May – but what do local people want, and what can they expect, given they have had mayor Joe Anderson for four years already?
I recently carried out an end of term review of the mayor’s time in office. I spoke to over 50 senior decision-makers from the public, private and voluntary sectors across Liverpool City Region and beyond, discussing their initial expectations of the mayor, whether they’d been met, and what their hopes are for the next mayor.
What did partners think an elected mayor would bring?
Essentially, they expected the mayor to help Liverpool punch above its weight. That meant increased leadership; a single voice for the city; an increased national and international profile; a clearer future economic narrative; a better relationship with the private sector; and a greater reputation and influence with national government.
What do local decision-makers think the mayor delivered?
The really striking conclusion is that the vast majority of partners believe they have got much (although not all) of what they wanted from the mayor – and for most, the role has been a success.
Sceptics have been converted and supporters reassured, and there is great goodwill and support for both the office and the individual. The private sector is especially committed, and everybody is keen for the role to be expanded across the city region with the new devolution deal.
The mayor has hit his quantitative pledges by building 12 new schools, creating over 20,000 jobs and building over 5,000 houses. Several prestige projects have been delivered, including the International Festival for Business, the Cunard Building headquarters for the city council, a new Exhibition Centre and hotel, the Cruise Liner terminal, and events like the hugely successful Giants Festival.
His exercise of soft power has also been impressive: Liverpool’s profile is higher, and the economic mood and performance are better. There’s a single voice for the city, and its standing with national government is much higher.
Most think the mayor must take some of the credit for these achievements. Anderson has also managed the austerity agenda (involving 58 per cent cuts) pretty well, balancing criticising government with taking necessary action to mitigate the impact of cuts.
His five mayoral commissions – on health, education, creativity, Europe and environmental sustainability – have engaged influential people and big ideas, while he has also helped deliver devolution for Liverpool City Region. His personality, passion, commitment and energy have helped his cause, and he is widely seen as an authentic scouser speaking up for his city and its people.
What should change?
However, that’s not to say everything has been perfect. Austerity has hit Liverpool badly – reducing capacity, absorbing the energy of senior decision-makers, distracting everyone from more strategic projects and limiting the money available to innovate or deliver more. The complexities of city region relationships have also been a drag on the mayor’s energy. And as ever, there were too many issues, too few people and too little time to do everything.
If Anderson were re-elected, local decision-makers said they would like him to focus on fewer strategic themes, rather than projects. They want the mayor to have a more powerful office, and a clearer economic narrative, plan and timetable. They also want a more continuous, coherent conversation with the private sector.
Some worry the office concentrates too much power in one person’s hands and want more internal and external challenge to that power. But the value of leadership and visibility outweighs most peoples’ concerns. In fact, the political class is much more concerned with scrutiny than the outside world, which is more focused on delivery and making Liverpool better.
What’s next for the Liverpool mayor – and for the new mayor of the Liverpool City Region?
In May we will find out if the voters of Liverpool share the same high regard for the mayor as many of its senior decision-makers do. But potentially more significant for the city will be the introduction of the new city region mayor, who will be elected in spring 2017. The outcome of this change could affect whether Liverpool City Council continues with an elected mayor or returns to a council leader model.
Indeed, many believe that an elected mayor will be better suited to the city region where there are more strategic issues. The role will be more complex, with a bigger territory and six local authorities to deal with.
The key task will be to make devolution deliver, and the mayor will need to give leadership for the city region internally and externally. He or she will need to deliver on the key strategic issues – economic development, skills, planning, transport and foreign affairs. They will need to develop a spatial plan showing where investment and jobs will go, where people will live, be educated and play and how they will get round the city region.
What qualities do people think the city region mayor will need?
In my review, people said they wanted the city region mayor to be above party in favour of place; statesmanlike enough to manage the political complexities; analytical enough to manage the policy complexities; strategic enough to focus on the bigger challenges; and a good listener as well as a good communicator. Above all else the mayor must be inclusive – of all sectors, people and places. So, obviously there will be no shortage of candidates.
But the time and place are right. As I argued in my new study, the Liverpool City Region has come a long way in recent years. It can go even further with greater vision, leadership and delivery. The challenge may be great. But as both government ministers and scousers might agree, the prize is even greater.
Professor Michael Parkinson CBE is executive director of the Heseltine Institute at the University of Liverpool, and a member of the Centre for Cities board.
This article was originally published in the Centre for Cities’ Mayoral Elections 2016 blog series, in which experts from the worlds of business, housing, local government and academia discuss the big issues ahead of the elections on 5 May.
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