Mayors advance the regeneration cause
10 June, 2005

Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
Regeneration and Renewal

Long term observers of local government may be forgiven for experiencing a strange sense of déjà vu of late. As Labour enters its third term of government, elected mayors are firmly on the policy agenda. The prospect of such figures running our major cities has been resurrected from the shallow grave in which it has lain since this flagship idea of Labour’s first term resulted in the election of a mere eleven local authority mayors during its second.

So what has brought about this return? An important factor has been the positive lessons learned from the current sample – ‘The First Eleven’ – and the relevance these lessons have to still un-resolved policy questions. The debate about mayors has moved from being a polarised and abstract one, based on what people believe they might or might not achieve, to an evidence-based discussion about the value this model of local leadership can bring.

An area of particular mayoral success has been their ability to drive the regeneration of their areas. Our mini crop of mayors have been tested in some of the most challenging circumstances possible; many in places with high levels of deprivation and decline such as Doncaster, Hackney, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Stoke-on-Trent. This was not accidental. Often with a backdrop of long term weaknesses in local political leadership, circumstances combined to create electorates prepared to endorse the mayoral idea as a way of striving for change locally.

Unsurprisingly therefore, many mayors have made regeneration a key plank of both their election platforms and subsequent focus in office. In the short term they have introduced high profile and effective streetscene initiatives, such as Doncaster’s FLAG scheme – Fighting Litter Abandoned cars and Graffiti – or Hartlepool’s Operation Clean Sweep. These have been designed to make a very tangible difference to the physical environment, as well as a highly visible statement about change. There have also been highly effective initiatives to tackle the issues which citizens experience at street level, such as crime, most notably in Middlesbrough.

However, mayors have also focused on grander, strategic planning for regeneration, instigating high profile projects to revitalise town centres and public spaces such as parks, as well as planning for the needs of investors who will bring growth and employment. Freeing up land for development, attracting new companies and organisations to the area, bringing partners together to provide new infrastructure projects and acting as high profile advocates of the advantages of their location, many mayors have put in place the ingredients for long term economic change.

Combined with this existing evidence base, the Government’s ongoing interest in new ways to drive the economic regeneration of our larger towns and cities has helped put mayors back on the policy agenda. Examples from abroad show how mayors can act as powerful figureheads and real delivery agents of local economic development. The out-performance of English cities by our European counterparts, the ongoing challenges of social and economic regeneration in many of our cities, and the unanswered ‘regional question’ in UK governance, has prompted a major rethink about the value mayors can bring. Part of this rethink involves the notion of ‘city regions’ and the types of leadership such entities might require – city region mayors, perhaps. Either way, the vision of elected mayors running Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and the like may yet become a reality after all.