The idea of metro mayors still has legs to run

The election results are almost all in and political anoraks have been digesting the information gleaned from the ballot boxes like famished goats.

The idea of metro mayors still has legs to run

The election results are almost all in and political anoraks have been digesting the information gleaned from the ballot boxes like famished goats. It is worth examining a set of votes that have rather slipped under their radar.

The outcome of the referenda on the proposal for directly elected city mayors merits study, not least because they reveal an appetite for reform of governance among the population. The narrow victory for the proposal in Limerick and equally narrow defeats in Cork and Waterford tells one quite a bit about the views of the voters in these areas.

If the voters were in an angry orcynical state of mind, the votes against would have weighed far more, not least because many in local politics appeared opposed to the idea, (a proposal which has the backing of the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.) The economic recovery in Limerick has certainly taken hold.

The vote there would also appear to amount to a thumbs up for the local government reforms put in place by former Fine Gael Local Government Minister and current EU Agriculture Minister, Phil Hogan. Limerick has had its ups and downs. The decision to merge the city and county councils is a real game changer. The change came into force, last year.

The previous separation had led to Limerick becoming a so-called doughnut city ringed by shopping centres, backed by a county council in search of new revenues. But let’s remember that was the midwest region where the Shannon Free Development zone was developed and where Tony Ryan’s aircraft leasing company, GPA, flew high in the 1980s.

Boris Johnson.
Boris Johnson.

To the east, Ed Walsh helped build up today’s university, an important factor in attracting investment to the area. This is also a city with a few rundown housing estates, once made infamous by gang wars. A decade ago, it hit rock bottomfollowing the closure of the Dell plant.

Led by Kerry Group founder, Denis Brosnan, the community rallied round first with a jobs task force, morerecently through the strategic development company, Limerick TwentyThirty. Since the nadir of 2011, its fortunes benefited from the presence in theDepartment of finance of local TD,Michael Noonan.

It is worth looking elsewhere for the origins of the experiment in elected mayors. The US is the obvious place in which to start. America’s mayors have been famously powerful, sometimes corrupt, and not always successful.

New York’s mayors are nationalfigures. Think of mayors such as Fiorello La Guardia, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani,Michael Bloomberg, and Bill de Blasio. The most influential figure, however, in 20th century New York was not a mayor, but its long-serving transport chief Robert Moses.

He changed the face of the metropolis, pushing through huge projects. The city was badly mismanaged for a while. This culminated in the city’s bankruptcy, in 1975, when Washingtonrefused a bailout. And it inspired the famous newspaper headline: “Ford to City — Drop Dead.”

US president Gerald Ford never used those words, but they nonetheless stuck to him politically. Later, Mayor Giuliani, after the 9/11 attacks, became a symbol of resistance. His zero tolerance approach to crime reaped big political dividends.

His successor, billionaire businessman, Mayor Bloomberg, was also a big success in the job. One of his greatest achievements was his overhaul of the city’s struggling public school system. New evaluation systems were introduced along with salary increases. An additional 80,000 education posts were created.

In other parts of the US, mayors have been something of a mixed bag, but they have offered a useful counterpoint to the Washington DC establishment. In the UK, the idea of elected mayors is much more recent. It all started with Tony Blair’s government which was keen to address the criticism that Britain was overly-centralised in terms of the exercise of power.

In 2000, legislation paved the way for 38 referenda in cities and towns. Just 13 of the localities voted to have a mayor and a man in a monkey suitwas elected as mayor of one north of England town and at a later stagesecured re-election.

London elected Ken Livingstone as its first executive mayor in 2000 and “Red Ken” succeeded in introducingan overhaul of bus transport and theintroduction of congestion charges. His successor, Boris Johnson, boosted the city’s profile but was less adept as an administrator, pursuing pie-in-the-sky projects by and large.

Nine areas in the UK again rejected having mayors in 2012, but the idea had taken hold. Two leading Labour politicians, Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan were elected mayors of Manchester and London. Former boss of retailer John Lewis Partnership, Andy Street, took over as the new mayor of the West Midlands.

London has been transformed by huge infrastructure projects such as Cross Rail and an undergroundupgrade — though with huge cost overruns. The London mayor reports to a 25 person assembly, which helps boostaccountability.

There is also extensive devolution of powers to 32 local boroughs on localissues, while City Hall controls transport planning and the police. A leading expert in local government, LSE professor Tony Travers, believes the job is only partly done.

He says councils must make a case for complete financial independence from Westminster. He points toEngland’s tradition of “cautious devolution”. Scandinavia has gone much further in handing over powers of taxation and spending to its regions and local areas.

But interesting experiments are underway with Mayor Sweet in the Midlands bringing his business skills to the job. For too long, central government departments here have held a vice group, and not always to good effect. The people of Limerick now have the chance to choose a local team and executive mayor.

Limerick and other leading towns could also attract central government departments to the area, now that that the roads are much improved. Limerick man, John Moran, a former secretary general at the Department of Finance, chairs the city’s land development agency. Mr Moran sees education as being the catalyst for development.

He is less enthusiastic about taxincentives as he recently told Village magazine. Leadership could come either from business, government, or trade unions. Local government in Ireland is on the cusp of change — and not before time.

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