Governments have failed — mayors are the future

The power to effect real change may lie with dynamic city halls rather than ossified national governments

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

As Michael Bloomberg approached the end of his time as Mayor of New York, Americans expected him to run for the White House. He had the money, the profile and the ego to be President. But the problem, as it turned out, was his ambition — he had too much of it to settle for the Oval Office. As he put it: ‘I have my own army, the seventh largest in the world. I have my own state department and I don’t listen to Washington very much.’ His ambition, it turns out, was not to be the next President of the United States. He wants to be Mayor of the World.

Bloomberg is deadly serious. Since stepping down last Christmas he has recruited a hit team of government advisers who intend to travel the world giving advice on how to run cities. It is, in effect, a freelance Bloomberg mayoralty — a roaming consulting service for municipalities everywhere. Bloomberg Associates will fly around the world to instruct mayors on economic growth, solving traffic issues and tackling gangs or gun crime. His clients — the cities — will not have to pay a penny to learn from Bloomberg. He is a multi-billionaire philanthropist, who believes that real power to change things belongs to these dynamic city halls, not ossified national governments.

Now that half the world’s population lives in cities, mayors have become more and more important. The unwieldy government machine can take years to change, but a city hall is a far smaller, more nimble unit. London, for example, shows what an active modern mayor can achieve. The city’s state schools now rank among the best in the land. Taxes have actually fallen. Crime is falling. Last week, the annual taxi fare increases were limited to 0.7 per cent. Visitors to the city can now see the brand-new hop-on hop-off Routemaster buses, simply because Boris Johnson thought it was a shame to see them go. Boris bikes — how many politicians have bikes, buses and possibly airports named after them? — have paved the way for a cycling revolution.

Londoners (there are more of them than Scots and Welsh put together) can argue that Boris has made more of an impact on their lives than David Cameron. And this is with the Mayor of London having fewer powers than most mayors. He is one of many from around the world — Tony Tan in Singapore, Yury Luzhkov of Moscow and Wolfgang Schuster in Stuttgart — who argue that the city is the optimum government unit. Some go even further and believe that empowered mayors are the only hope of restoring faith in politics. In his book If Mayors Ruled the World, the American political theorist Benjamin Barber argues that mayors are the remedy for opaque and disconnected political institutions. Nation states are ‘indisposed to cooperation’ and ‘too inclined by their nature to rivalry’, he says. But cities can do what the states and nations cannot. In other words, we ought not to look to David Cameron and Barack Obama for visions of the future — we should look to Boris and Bloomberg.

David Cameron was once enthusiastic about this idea too. In opposition, he had a plan to put mayors everywhere. But of 11 cities asked in a referendum, only Bristol and Doncaster said yes to elected mayors. The policy was half-baked and those behind it felt Whitehall should stay out of it. Nothing scares the British public more than the thought of those in charge imposing more tiers of government.

Bristol offers a glimpse of what might have been. George Ferguson, a red–trouser-clad 67-year-old architect, was elected as an independent candidate for mayor 16 months ago. Since then his record has been striking. He has banished cyclist-unfriendly bendy buses, revoked Sunday parking charges, signed off on several new primary schools and implemented a 20mph zone in residential areas. Ferguson has flown around the world to promote Bristol, campaigning for the city to be given the title of European Green Capital 2015 (he succeeded). He is not party political, but has his own war cry: ‘If we’re going to save the world, let’s have fun doing it.’

George Ferguson, the first directly-elected Mayor of Bristol.

Many global success stories can be traced to strong mayors, rather than strong prime ministers or presidents. New Delhi’s revival is down to Sheila Dikshit, who has rebuilt her city over the past 15 years. She oversaw an all-new metro system that came in on time and on budget, as well as significantly reducing pollution and presiding over the rebuilding of all of the cities’ road networks.

Palermo in Sicily only managed to take down the Mafia after a strong mayor, Leoluca Orlando, rooted out government contracts with companies suspected of being linked to the mob.

Increasingly, mayors now look to each other and borrow ideas: Bill Bratton, who pioneered zero-tolerance policing in New York, was David Cameron’s favourite to run the Metropolitan Police. Bike schemes are popping up from Brazil to Beijing. Milan recently adopted a London-style congestion charge.

As a species, mayors have features in common: they tend to be flamboyant mavericks with no respect for the political hierarchy. Michael Bloomberg was a Democrat, before defecting to the Republicans and then finishing his term as an independent. Boris Johnson was once known as an SDP man, before moving to the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories. The ideological indifference — pragmatism over politics — fits with a trend where voters, worldwide, are becoming less tribal.

Also, cities like to learn from each other. In If Mayors Ruled the World, Barber proposes an international parliament of mayors; 3,000 city leaders uniting together to compare notes. It would be like a United Nations for municipalities — except it might actually work. Mayors would continue to do what they do now, but as with Bloomberg’s grand plan, their pooled knowledge would help to tackle the problems our national governments seem unable to fix.

In the corridors and pubs of Westminster, conversations inevitably turn to everyone’s favourite gossiping game — what will Boris do next? The Mayor is adept at not giving a straight answer, and perhaps this is why. Why waste his time in the drudgery, drift and listlessness of national parliaments when he already has the top job?

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  • John Devon

    And what about the rest of us that don’t live in big cities? London sucks the life out of the rest of the UK, and gets hugely more of the money and resources that the rest of us (though of course it also generates proportionately more of the money than the rest of us).
    What form of government does Seb Payne suggest would be appropriate for Devon, population just over a million, which has only Exeter (pop. under 120K), over 400 parishes, and a few small towns now that Plymouth and Torbay are unitary authorities? Who is going to fight for us and just as one example get our transport infrastructure improved? We had our main railway line shut for weeks, and are never going to get electrified rail lines, or branch lines reopened. The A303 west of Yeovil is a joke, the promised link to the M5 seems to have been quietly dropped. Similar issues arise in relation to schools, where we get much less funding per pupil despite the difficulties of running rural schools, and school transport is similarly underfunded. But we have no one voice to fight for us.
    Would an elected Mayor of Devon be able to wave a magic wand and sort this out?

    • Slicer

      The solution to your gripe about London is to devolve more powers to London. For example London gets to keep 7% of taxes raised there how about letting it keep 100% of taxes collected there (likewise with cities elsewhere in the UK).

  • rtj1211

    I don’t think Mayors in the UK have necessarily succeeded.

    For every Bloomberg in the US, there are dysfunctional cities with poor mayors.

    This is just another Boris-friendly article which continues 4 years of not looking too closely at what he has actually DONE.

  • Jack

    How long’s that man been in office? He looks downright raddled by the experience. Perhaps there’s a reason that powerholders are surrounded by administrators – direct democracy is an experience of many kinds. That doesn’t justify any letup in the seeking of better forms of democracy. Everything else evolves, and democracy too.

  • R Fairless

    That’s exactly what the EU wants. Get rid of Parliament and allow the EU to deal directly with Regions. Prescott tried to start Regional government a few years ago but was rejected. It is to the advantage of the EU to diminish the power of `Parliament and thus add to its own. It is another step towards federalisation.

  • Big Vern

    Bloomburg. A North Londoner who has spent millions trying to undermine the American Constitution.
    Like the Soviet Spy families over here, the Milibands ect, their devotion to the Death Cult is amazing.
    It’s as if the chief Rabbi of Berlin had said. “Vote national socialist, they promise to be strong on law and order”.
    Marx is the worst thing to happen to the home world in 16,000 years.

  • Rtd Colonel

    Tower Hamlets – that’s working well …

    • Realpolitik

      Had those same words on the tips of my fingers, it’s been a real pain, must remember not to use such strong glue in future.

  • FrenchNewsonlin

    Not new. What about the ancient Greek city-states? And then there are French mayors (who in some cases double as parliamentarians and regional administrators) and many of whom are certainly powerful enough to affect national policy-making.

  • Terence Hale

    Governments have failed – mayors are the future. Undoubtedly Mr.Bloomberg has made New York one of the most respectical places to live, Mr. Johnson is working on London to do the same. Mr. Johnson’s task being more difficult because of the village nature of London, however the financial gains of seeking such an endeavour are well worth the effort. If the municipal management of government renders a candidate fit for higher office can best be Judged from France where such has been common.

  • Tom Tom

    If they don’t raise the taxes they have no power. Bloomberg has a City Income Tax, London does not. London has no Hotel Tax New York charges 5.875% to total 14% on hotel rooms plus cigarette taxes.

    Why doesn’t London impose a City Income Tax of 5% plus cigarette taxes plus Hotel Taxes plus Taxi Levy plus Property Taxes based on a percentage of Market Value ?

    That is how to fund your Mayors and make them really local Sebastian

  • transponder

    Mayors are the most junior of genuine politicians, and rarely amount to more (being mayor of a major city, such as Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, matters a great deal). In fact, outside of NYC I can’t think of a single mayor worth national consideration.

    So the author thinks ‘Nurse Bloomberg’, as he has been dubbed, is a role model for politics. That says everything.