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Government / Local politics

When it comes to the role of its mayors, the UK is lagging behind

Last week, the City Mayors Foundation think tank announced the winner of the biennial “Mayor of the Year” award, which recognises outstanding leadership by mayors of global cities and city-regions.

The prize aims to showcase the achievements of mayors who have conceptualised and enacted strategic visions for the development of their cities, and which can be used as basis for economic regeneration in other places throughout the world. Finalists from across the world, including Bristol’s George Ferguson and Liverpool’s Joe Anderson, all competed for this year’s title.

The winner of the 2014 World Mayor Prize was mayor Naheed Nenshi, the socially progressive Mayor of Calgary, a city in the traditionally conservative Canadian province of Alberta. Calgary is an economically successful city of almost 1.2m residents, offering high wages, low unemployment, an abundance of professional and high-skilled jobs, and strong levels of GDP per capita. The city was named as the best performing local economy in Canada in 2011, and is recognised for its high quality of life.

Calgary’s successes largely derive from its leading position in oil and gas production – a “golden ticket”, but one which, if not carefully managed, can leave cities exposed to volatile prices and the periods of bust that so often follow boom-town years.

To this end, Nenshi was recognised for his effectiveness in monetising Calgary’s oil and gas industry; ensuring its proceeds were reinvested in education and infrastructure; and in fostering an entrepreneurial environment – policies that will help to preserve the rewards of its current wealth for future generations.

Mayor Nenshi’s tenure offers some important lessons on the complexities of governing cities at a time where national governments continue to hold many of the purse strings and policy levers needed to effect change. It also provides some impressive examples of what can be achieved through strong and visionary leadership at the mayoral level.

The taming of the sprawl

When Mayor Nenshi came to office, he identified Calgary’s growing urban sprawl as the key threat to the city’s future economic performance and environmental sustainability. That’s because, through the processes of agglomeration, cities with strong and relatively dense city centres are best-placed to encourage the collaboration and knowledge-sharing that drives productivity and growth in private sector firms. They also, as we see in the case of London, produce fewer carbon emissions (less travel is needed to connect workers to firms). They’re cheaper for governments to govern effectively, too, as they support more efficient services.

Downtown Calgary. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Nenshi’s insistence on combating urban sprawl did not win him many friends among property developers, but it has certainly been effective. When he took over the mayoralty, 100 per cent of new development was in new communities, and established communities were losing population. Today, Nenshi claims a third of new development is taking place through increasing the city’s density, and the new housing stock that is being constructed is also progressively diverse – enabling residents to benefit from an increase in both supply and choice in the housing market.

While his achievements have won him high praise, Nenshi has also used his victory to highlight some of the difficulties he and his mayoral counterparts have faced in trying to affect change in their communities. In particular, he’s pointed to the challenges in governing large-scale cities, which he said had come about through a system of “diseconomies of scale – where it is more expensive to serve a larger population than a smaller one”.

This is particularly true, he said, of public transport systems, which in larger cities must be cost-effective, integrated, and with a significant reach – necessitating a scale whose capital costs cannot be met through local revenues. Given the importance of transport investment in supporting future growth in cities, he called for a fundamental rethink of how cities are funded, through delineating the responsibilities of local and federal governments, and identifying new sources of sustainable revenue for each to meet their service areas.

A bigger role for mayors

When asked if mayors should rule the world – as per Benjamin Barber’s ponderings – Nenshi replied that “people should rule the world”. But he added that, given mayors are “closest to the people we serve” and “the work of cities affects people’s daily lives”, he could understand why there was a call for those with a “more direct impact” to hold greater power. In his final comments when accepting the award, he urged other levels of government to be more open to the input and perspectives of mayors, who carry “the voice of our citizens”.

At the Centre for Cities, we have long supported the mayoral model as an important strategic and civic structure, from which cities can build long-term plans towards achieving local economic growth and higher standards of living. But this biennial prize is typically a reminder of just how much the UK lags behind many other nations: we just don’t have a standardised and celebrated system of governance for large cities and city-regions. It also highlights how little power many of the nominees’ existing counterparts in England possess over the major drivers of economic growth in their cities – such as housing, transport and skills – compared to their international peer group.

This year’s Mayor of the Year Award is unlikely in itself to propel us towards a tipping point of mayoral world dominance. But, as have seen in the ongoing media and public interest in the cult of Boris Johnson, and – more formally – in the recent devolution agreement with Greater Manchester, there is a slow but growing recognition here in the UK of the instrumental role that mayors can play in championing the interests of their cities and city-regions.

The UK’s ambition should be to feature much more strongly in the future nominations for this award, with a larger number of candidates who can showcase an impressive record of achievement gained on a much more level playing field. But until national government commits to devolving greater powers over those issues best addressed at a local level, and supports the establishment of new mayoral systems in more cities and city-regions throughout the country, this award will serve only as a reminder of what could be achieved here.

Sophie Gaston is head of external affairs at the Centre for Cities. This article was originally posted on the think tank’s blog.
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