Cities need to make the case for a real deal

I’ve been having discussions and reading about the enhanced role our major cities can play, proposals to hand more power and responsibility to city halls, or Core Cities, and the ambition of towns to be seen as having more clout.

Yesterday’s announcement that Perth, St Asaph and Chelmsford are to be crowned Jubilee cities brought back memories of my time reporting the ultimately fruitless city status bids of the towns in which I worked, in Reading at the end of the 1990s and Doncaster a couple of years later. A lot of people don’t get the point of these city status bids, as they confer no extra power or funding on the winner. But it shouldn’t be underestimated what it means to people who live and work there. It can help raise the profile or even change the image of a place (ask Preston, who beat Donny to become a ‘Golden City’ in 2002).

Doncaster is also often mentioned in debates concerning the elected mayor model, which is being pushed in major cities this year, although it is not highlighted for the right reasons. It was one of the early adopters of the approach 10 years ago. After a decade, Doncaster folk are set to vote on whether to ditch the model, which is currently headed by English Democrat elected mayor Peter Davies. Doncaster’s had problems, but I’ve always thought it unfair to blame them on its system of governance, as some have done. When the first mayor was elected in 2001, the local authority was beginning to come out of a constitutional crisis, caused by the worst case of local government corruption seen in this country for decades. Some councillors were still due to have their collars felt for fiddling their expenses at the time the first mayor Martin Winter was elected. His two terms at the helm were eventful and he left amid a storm having fallen out with the local Labour party (in an area where Caroline Flint, Rosie Winterton and Ed Miliband are all Doncaster MPs). Any elected mayor would have found it a tough hand to have been dealt.

Will the cities hosting votes in May on the question of whether they will be run by an elected mayor fare better than Donny if people say yes? I think so, but securing a decent turnout in the votes is a significant challenge if recent poll findings from some city areas are anything to go by. In Bristol, which is voting, the debate has yet to take off. If people don’t yet know what having an elected mayor will mean, how can they be expected to support it? Times are tough, but if the campaigns don’t get going soon apathy will win the day.

In the background to all of this is the real clincher for those interested in seeing our cities have more influence over their own affairs. City Deals are the Government’s way of redressing the imbalance between London and other Core Cities, and elected mayors are a part of that. These deals could bring them new powers and funding in exchange for new ‘asks’ that Government would expect in return (which includes elected mayors). A report published today by the Centre for Cities sets out some of the key elements of City Deals and the progress made to date. It’s a useful read – but why have so many voters not heard more about the proposals?

There is a lot for cities to play for in the next few months. It’s a great opportunity for them. But there’s still an argument to be won.