|Can you hear the debate?|
As far as I can see, much of the debate is in the blogosphere, which is probably a sign that the subject has so far caught the interest only of what you might call the chattering classes – business people, politicians and those who think stuff like this matters.
I’m not aware there is any great groundswell of interest in this debate. Chris Leslie, the MP for Nottingham East and Shadow treasury secretary, probably hit the nail on the head when he suggested that, whether you think it’s a good idea or not, people will struggle to see the structure of local government as a priority. Most will think it’s policy that matters – what you do, rather than how you do it.
That’s no reason not to talk about it, though, and the debate so far has been poor. The City Council’s position – that it would cost £1 million for a ‘Tory extra mayor’ – sidesteps the issue of whether an elected figurehead for the city would be a good thing or not and focuses on the usual tribal antagonism.
I’m not sure that’s a smart move, since it risks reinforcing the prejudices some people hold about the way the city is currently run. It’s too adversarial and doesn’t offer an alternative vision. The ‘debate’ appears to be heading to a depressingly reductive conclusion.
For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced that an elected mayor is the solution to all of Nottingham’s development problems. As I wrote in a column for the Nottingham Post (and as others have already observed), it is the city’s administrative boundaries – which go back decades – which really hold it back because they have put the control of one economic entity in the hands of a series of different councils.
This makes the development of that economic entity overly-complicated, and leaves the city council in particular spending far too much time making excuses for poor educational attainment, poor skill levels and poor crime figures.
The apparent severity of every single one of those problems is a direct result of an artificially tight boundary which excludes the suburban affluence and prosperity which balance those numbers in most other cities. It also puts an undue pressure on the city council to produce artificial evidence of swift progress 'solving' a problem which can never be sorted quickly.
A bigger city with impressive demography and achievement, a powerful economic entity which could be developed as a coherent force would put Nottingham in a far stronger position on the national and international stage. Its smallness and its knotty ‘problems’ would fade overnight.
Everybody in Nottingham knows this to be true, and so I suspect does the Department for Communities and Local Government. But a very wise civil servant told me that no one will do anything about it. National politicians won’t touch local government reorganisation because it would be complicated, expensive and take years to sort – in other words, they couldn’t take any credit for it in time for an election.
Local politicians won’t touch it out of a similar self-interest. A bigger city including affluent suburbs would almost certainly water down Labour’s tight control of the council, while also rendering numerous power centres in surrounding boroughs and districts redundant. And turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, do they?
So there is a bit of an irony in suggestions that the push for elected mayors is an attempt to free cities from their shackles and present them with an opportunity to make high-profile progress. It may well be – but only up to a point in Nottingham’s case.
Still, is something better than nothing? Without in any way being partisan, there has been significant concern in business circles for a long time about the city’s failure to punch its weight. That Broadmarsh remains undeveloped more than a decade after it was first mooted is a disgrace, and a portfolio of ambitious CGIs brought forth a grand total of nothing in two major regeneration zones during a once-in-a-lifetime development boom. Only now is the city’s planning department shaking off its reputation as a hurdle to development.
The city council will quite justifiably point to a good tram network which is going to be expanded still further as a clear example of its ability to deliver genuinely ambitious infrastructure projects which have the capacity to encourage the transformation of communities.
You can’t argue with that, and I wonder whether we really make enough of a £600m mass transit system and the economic benefits it might bring.
But if we can deliver that, why can’t we deliver other major projects?
To me, that begs two questions which may shed light on the mayoral debate. What are the city’s political priorities, and does it invest anywhere near enough time and effort in heavyweight engagement with senior civil servants and senior politicians in London?
If Nottingham can deliver a tram project, why couldn’t it muscle Broadmarsh over the line before Westfield walked away, and why couldn’t it get the wheels in motion on Eastside and Waterside? Why did we get poked in the eye over the super-connected cities project, a silly decision which smacked of wanting to teach Nottingham a political lesson? Are we really serious about big, visionary development?
Nottingham City Council’s political leadership holds strong and very clearly-defined views and has demonstrated a laudable commitment to tackling some serious social issues. It provides certainty where the ‘opposition’ is hopelessly disorganised.
But it sometimes appears to want to engage with the outside world only on its own terms. As my wise friend put it to me, you don’t get Whitehall buy-in by shouting in the Market Square.
Is this another reason why what we think is a big city is seen as small by others?
When you look at some of the UK’s really big cities, they are usually associated with big personalities who knock heads together and use powerful connections to get things done for their cities. Think Sir Richard Knowles and Sir Albert Bore, political leaders in Birmingham, Sir Richard Leese and Howard Bernstein, respectively the leader and chief executive in Manchester (the knighthoods are a clue to just how well-connected and respected these people are), Keith Wakefield and Tom Riordan, the current custodians in Leeds.
There’s also Sir Michael Lyons, the former Birmingham City Council chief exec who went on to become chairman of the BBC. And before that? He was chief exec of Notts County Council…
How about Nottingham? Up until Jane Todd’s arrival the chief executive’s office in Nottingham appeared to have a revolving door, and its leadership, while utterly committed to tackling problems in Nottingham, seems ambivalent about relationships outside it.
An elected mayor for Nottingham could be seen as a political fix, an attempt to cure the boundary issue by imposing another structure which sits above the old, boundary-driven muddle beneath.
But it may well be worth a try. Government has dropped heavy hints that it will use these offices to distribute resources and if Nottingham isn’t even sitting round the table we won’t be appearing in any announcements. That’s a hard, political fact. It leaves us stuck in second gear, still comparing ourselves to Derby and Leicester when we should be talking about where we are in relation to the likes of Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield.
In that context, a debate about whether the city should have a “£1m Tory extra mayor” on a “fatcat salary” is hardly taking the visionary high ground of a big city. It risks being seen as a wearily tribal 'our way or no way' approach.
We have some huge opportunities in our city – no one should be in any doubt about that. But they can only be exploited through relationships outside the city. Have we really got the structure to deliver that?