Power shift

Sir Robin Wales, Jules Pipe, Peter Soulsby, Gordon Oliver, Boris Johnson. You might not recognise all their names, but they share a job in common: they are all directly elected mayors. The role hands them considerable local power - far more than a council leader.

If the government gets its way, there could soon be 11 more names to add to this list. Residents in 10 cities go to the polls in May to decide whether they want an elected mayor or not. Liverpool decided earlier this month that it will adopt the mayoral system and residents will vote in its new mayor in May.

The moves are a culmination of a process that began as long ago as February 2009 - long before the current government came to power - when David Cameron floated the idea of giving each of England’s major cities the power to elect a mayor. The proposals were firmed up in the coalition’s flagship Localism Act and 12 cities were named as potential new election grounds for mayoral candidates.

Leicester has already elected a mayor - Labour’s Peter Soulsby - so, if residents vote ‘yes’ in the 10 remaining cities, what powers would these mayors have, how much funding would they get and what, if any, impact could they have on housing?

Leading the way

Having a powerful mayor fits with the government’s suggestion that cities need to ‘demonstrate strong, accountable leadership, an ambitious agenda for the economic future of their area, effective decision-making structures, and private sector involvement and leadership’, according to a Cabinet Office report, Unlocking growth in cities, which was published in December.

Directly elected mayors are chosen by residents, as opposed to council leaders who are chosen by councillors, making it more democratic and the mayor more accountable to residents.

A mayor would be responsible for leading the city, building investor confidence and directing new resources to economic priorities - but ultimately the main difference between a mayor and a leader is their method of election.

For the 12 cities outlined in the Localism Act, electing a mayor serves as a bargaining tool - the government has promised more money, and greater control of land assets, for cities with strong leadership. The implication is this would involve a mayor. Additionally, mayors could set up development agencies and only a third of councillors need to agree the budget and local policy frameworks, in contrast to the majority required by the council leader.

The report set out the terms for a programme of city deals - agreements which enable cities to negotiate with the government over the devolution of powers, resources and responsibilities required to meet locally determined economic and social objectives.

London’s elected mayors have been powerful figures - both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have had a big say over the direction of housing policy in the city. The mayor’s remit has included shaping housing policy and making planning decisions, and in the 12 years there’s been a mayor in office, at total of 199,040 homes have been built - 156,180 under Mr Livingstone, and 42,560 under Mr Johnson.

David Montague, chief executive of housing association L&Q, says anything which raises the profile of housing in a city has to be a good thing: ‘One of the strengths of having an elected mayor is that it draws all of the commitments [to housing] together into a strong strategy and helps
to coordinate housing activity across London.’

Liverpool certainly has ambitious plans for using the new mayoral powers to boost economic growth. Last week, the council signed a city deal worth £130 million, including £75 million of government money and a pool of other, private funds. Council leader Joe Anderson intends to stand for mayor and will pledge to reduce the number of empty homes and help regenerate areas of the city that were hit by the disbanding of the housing market renewal programme.

The Liverpool mayor will be given the freedom to set up a mayoral development corporation, act as the chair of a new investment board which would bring together all of the city’s land, commercial and residential assets and head the development of a new approach to getting people into work.

Half of the remaining 10 cities poised to vote on having an elected mayor are also in HMR areas. Not all of them are fans of the mayoral proposal, however. Harry Harpham, cabinet member for housing at Sheffield Council, says the loss of HMR funding has hit the city hard. But he feels that an elected mayor would be little help.

‘We were getting between £10 million and £20 million a year and that’s been replaced by almost £2 million of new homes bonus which is just a drop in the ocean,’ he says. ‘Anything that leverages cash into the city is welcome but I don’t think a mayor would do that. The biggest obstacle to [getting money] is the government’s austerity programme.’

Holistic view

Alex Thomson, chief executive of think tank Localis, believes directly elected mayors will have a strong influence over housing and planning because they can create a plan for a whole area. ‘They will provide a high-level, focused voice that can determine when a priority for the city outweighs the wishes of a single local community,’ he says.

‘This will allow them to take a more strategic overview, setting out a vision for their city that considers the balance between consolidation and conservation in some areas, and expansion through major developments in others. And because they will be able to wield considerable influence and make deals without having to compromise with vested interests, the result should be less nimbyism.’

Elected mayors will have real, tangible power through the transfer of Homes and Communities Agency funds. In November 2010, the government said London mayor Mr Johnson would be given the HCA’s £1.1 billion a year funding and functions for the city to ‘strengthen lines of accountability’. It is this devolution of power which could see a real boost for local housing investment, if an elected mayor decides to expend resources that way.

Gaining assets

And it doesn’t stop with cold, hard cash. Since the Regional Development Agency’s assets will transfer to the HCA, mayors could be in line to get their hands on a share of £300 million in land and property assets as the HCA hands these assets to mayors to use.

‘No individual will have had as great a control over the provision of housing stock in an area since the 19th century,’ concludes Mr Thomson.

But Anthony Negus, cabinet member for housing at Bristol Council - one of the cities still to decide whether or not it wants a mayor - has doubts about what a mayor could achieve and is against the idea.

‘The difference will be really limited on things we do strategically for housing, because so much of it is behind the scenes and I doubt the mayor will want to be involved in that: the nitty gritty, day-to-day stuff.’

Mr Negus says the council’s current work on housing and homelessness is enough to tackle the council’s waiting list of 15,900 households. Other councils are neutral about the idea.

Michael Burke, cabinet member for housing at Newcastle Council, says he hopes the strong relationship with the city’s arm’s-length management organisation, Your Homes Newcastle, would continue whether or not residents vote for a mayor.

‘There are benefits and drawbacks to the proposal and we will be putting the pros and cons to residents in May,’ he says.

The Communities and Local Government department declined to comment on directly elected mayors’ potential influence over housing.

But it seems that if, and at the moment it’s a big if, elected mayors come into power they could change the face of planning for housing need in the country’s biggest cities. That’s a lot of responsibility for anyone.

The mayoral movement

Council Population Households
on waiting list
Regional development
agency
RDA assets
Bristol 421,000 11,167 South West £40m
Birmingham 971,000 16,429 Advantage West Midlands £107m
Coventry 303,000 20,460 Advantage West Midlands £107m
Nottingham 250,000 9,616 East Midlands £18.5m
Leicester 331,000 7,519 East Midlands £18.5m
Newcastle 190,000 9,588 One North East £55m
Bradford 294,000 20,800 Yorkshire Forward £90m
Leeds 443,000 21,881 Yorkshire Forward £90m
Sheffield 440,000 93,532 Yorkshire Forward £90m
Wakefield 77,000 24,550 Yorkshire Forward £90m
Manchester 394,000 14,398 North West £90m
Liverpool 469,000 13,977 North West £90m

 

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