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Debate: Liverpool opts to elect city mayor

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Last week, Liverpool stole a march on the country’s biggest regional capitals, bypassing a city wide referendum and voting to create the post of a directly elected city mayor

The cities of Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield will not go to the polls until May to decide whether they also wish to be run by a mayor.

Liverpool’s historic decision to appoint a Boris Johnson-type figure comes in the wake of a new ‘city deal’ negotiated with Westminster. The move will see the city gain new powers in tandem with the creation of a single investment cash pot of new and existing public and private money, initially worth £130 million but with the potential to rise to £1 billion.

Whoever is voted into the role on 7 May will effectively take responsibility for this fund and the foundation of the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside London.

In addition, the Liverpool mayor will act as the chair of a new investment board, which would bring together all of the City’s assets such as land, office and residential buildings including assets formerly owned by the North West Development Agency.

Liverpool’s decision was welcomed by Richard Rogers, a long-term fan of the mayoral system, who told the AJ he ‘believed in the power of cities, and elected mayors will strengthen that power.’

Mayors always want to leave a powerful legacy

Richard Simmons, the former CABE chief executive and visiting professor of City Design and Regeneration at the University of Greenwich, was also enthusiastic: ‘Focusing leadership, new money and assets in the hands of a visionary mayor would be good news for Liverpool, so long as it’s not just business as usual.

‘The mayor should look hard at the asset value and potential of existing neighbourhoods before sweeping them away. Mayors always want to leave a powerful legacy. Liverpool’s potential means that its mayor has more opportunities than most to do so, standing above local party politics and giving direction and meaning to a great city.’

However, Brain Hatton, who has taught at the Architectural Association and at Liverpool John Moores University was not convinced. He said: ‘City governments in the UK are weaker than any in Europe or America. Their powers must be enhanced if they are to fulfil citizens‘ aspirations. But are “presidential” mayors the best way to do so? Why not just enhance the powers of current local government?’

Hatton also had concerns about the impact an elected mayor could really have upon on a city the size of Liverpool. He said: ‘Outside London, no UK municipality corresponds to a whole city. A mayor would be worthwhile only for the whole city. But Liverpool and Manchester, at about 450,000 each, are fractions of Greater Liverpool and Greater Manchester, respectively about 2.2 million and 2.4 million. The best solution for Britain’s big cities would be to make each of them city-regions. The geographic template should be that of Greater London, with a radius of 25-30 kilometres. ‘

Alan Berman of Berman Gueddes Stretton was also against the principle of a city mayor, asking: ‘Is the mediocrity of unimaginative nay-saying bureaucrats at town hall better or worse than petty dictators wielding self-interested power? Until we breed benign, intelligent, socially minded and incorruptible leaders, power shouldn’t be concentrated in the hands of one person.’

The three confirmed mayoral candidates are: former BBC journalist Liam Fogarty; current council leader Joe Anderson; and celebrity hairdresser Herbert Howe, who commissioned Piers Gough’s CZWG to design his Bling Bling salon.

Fogarty is already making some interesting noises about design and architecture saying that he has serious reservations about Peel’s monster Liverpool Waters scheme designed by Chapman Taylor.

He said: ‘Peel’s record at delivering good architecture is questionable. What is proposed for Peel Ports’ dock estate in Liverpool is mediocre and soulless. It’s just not good enough for our city. We shouldn’t be afraid to insist on the highest design standards.’

Fogarty added: ‘I’d certainly want to host design competitions to put new life into some of Liverpool’s dead zones. That said, in the current financial climate, the emphasis would have to be on sustainable, low-maintenance solutions instead of grands projets.’.

Other comments:

Miles Falkingham, director Union North: ‘Localism in planning and politics is a lottery in terms of promoting quality in the built environment, subject as it is to personality, local pressure groups and vested interest. To achieve higher standards and a higher threshold in terms of design quality (as opposed to strategic aims) our feeling is that autonomy from local politics is essential and would prefer to see greatly strengthened national or regional design advisory bodies with qualitative criteria.’ 

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