This week Centre for Cities held the first ever international metro mayors’ summit, bringing together the UK’s new metro mayors with counterparts from US cities for three days of discussions and events (organised in partnership with Citi and Boston University’s Initiative on Cities).
The aim of the summit was to offer a platform for mayors from both sides of the Atlantic to exchange ideas and experiences, and to forge a network through which to maximise their collective influence. Topics for discussion included the role of mayors in the 21st century, making the best use of both formal and soft powers, and how they can fund and finance their policy objectives.
Across these discussions, a number of themes came to the fore again and again:
- Commonality of challenges. While oceans, ideologies and levels of power may divide them, each of the mayors shared many common challenges with both national and international counterparts. From supporting businesses to grow and ensuring that all members of the community can benefit, to how cities can tackle climate change and reduce pollution, all of the major issues discussed were relevant to the various mayors regardless of where they came from. In the face of these shared challenges, the mayors agreed that the city is the scale at which solutions to national global economic and political shifts are best found, and most effectively delivered. These shared challenges – and their shared solutions – highlighted the importance of forging links between mayors across the country and globe to exchange ideas and learning.
- Leadership of place. The mayors described at their roles as being much more than a city manager, and instead being leaders of their place. Their formal powers and electoral mandate form a central core to support the wider civic leadership role that voters expect mayors to take on – and that they need to acquire in order to make the most of their formal powers. They are the most visible and accountable representative of their city, not only to local citizens but to the wider world. There was also consensus that improving the culture and performance of local governance will be vital in enabling greater civic development.
- Providing a voice for their city. At times of tragedy, such as after the Charleston church shooting or Manchester Arena attack, media and the public turn to city leaders to be the voice of their community. This role might not feature in a devolution deal or city charter, but at times of great sadness or joy within their community mayors are looked to as the face and voice of their city, to embody its values and shape its discourse. In the age of social media and polarising politics, this role has grown more important.
- There are no no-go areas for mayors in using their soft powers. As the most visible local elected representative, citizens look to mayors to solve local problems, irrespective of whether they fall within the remit of their formal powers – from poorly performing schools or hospitals, to crime and pollution. This public demand for mayors to be the voice of their community and address problems (even if it is another statutory authority which should be dealing with them) provides the democratic basis for their soft power to engage and influence these debates. As the first occupiers of their offices, some UK mayors felt liberated that there was no manual on how to be a mayor, or what their no-go areas might be. This is reflected in the fact that public concerns about the performance of Cleveland Police in the Tees Valley, and public schools in Louisville, have seen the respective mayors of those places get involved in trying to reform public services which stand outside of their formal purview.
- The big difference between the UK and US mayors is that the latter have much greater formal powers. The lack of fiscal and regulatory powers available to UK mayors was a source of astonishment to the US mayors, one of whom argued that ‘you can’t control your future if you don’t control your resources’. This significant no-go area for UK mayors on hard fiscal powers again underlines the importance of them making the most of their much wider soft powers, especially when it comes to finding innovative ways to lever and coordinate funding and finance within their cities. Government should also continue to give the mayors more fiscal powers and autonomy in future, which will enable them to have greater influence in driving growth in their economies, and will also enhance the effectiveness of their soft powers.
Of course, this is just the start of the mayoral agenda in the UK. After seven months, UK metro mayors are still exploring the possibilities of their role and the limits they can push, as well as linking into a global network of like-minded local leaders facing similar challenges. As the Budget showed, more powers and funding look set to flow to the mayors, and they may also be joined by new mayors in other city regions. Understanding the full nature and potential of the role in the 21st Century will be the key to improving the performance of city economies, and the lives of their inhabitants in the coming years.