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Monday, 20 September 2010

Room at the Top for Strong Leadership

Article published by Ross Martin (Policy Director) in the Scotsman 8/9/2010.

“More than a quarter of Scotland's population live in them. Two in every three jobs are created by them. A third of research and development is carried out in and around them, and half of our gross value added is produced by them. They are the engines of our economy; they are Scotland's cities.

Our cities are the beating heart of the Scottish Government's drive towards sustainable economic growth and they will remain so regardless of the outcome of next year's election or the political composition of the incoming administration.

And yet who leads Scotland's cities? Do we have a single political personality to match the gung-ho dynamism of New York's former leader Rudolph Giuliani, the bold character of a Boris Johnson or the direct political purpose of a "Red Ken"? These city leaders make a real difference when they combine their own character with real political power. Sadly, our city councillors simply don't have that political power to impose themselves and their programmes in the same way that these leaders of real world cities do.

Setting aside political preference, no-one can argue against the fact that Giuliani made safe the streets of New York with his get-tough policy of Zero Tolerance to crime, or that he made New Yorkers feel safer with his dynamic leadership after 9/11.

Equally, it is impossible to argue against the fact that Johnson took on the Home Office and removed the UK's most senior police chief and so prepared the ground for the policy of directly elected police commissioners. And what of Ken Livingstone, the left-wing leader who introduced the UK's first example of demand management in a period of rapid growth, the congestion charge? This was made possible, without the central government interference that killed off his cheap fares on the Underground, because he was a directly elected mayor with a mandate.

Compare and contrast the success of "Red Ken" pushing through that change, of much greater magnitude and impact than that attempted in Edinburgh, with the democratic debacle that the capital's council oversaw. London's congestion charge has become an integral part of the transport system, helping pay for much need infrastructure upgrades.

What price that firm leadership and policy for Edinburgh to fund the trams or for Glasgow to pay for the much needed upgrade of the subway or for Aberdeen to pay for a by-pass?

Our city leaderships have had to resort to other ways of seeking support for such transport projects that will drive economic growth, for example Edinburgh's then leader being unable to even secure the support of his own colleagues and seeking refuge in a referendum doomed to failure before the ballot had even begun. Have our other cities fared any better?

In Aberdeen, this lack of political power has frustrated any real effort to tackle the structural budget deficit the city council inherited from day one. Created on 1 April, 1996, a cruel joke indeed, Aberdeen City Council required extraordinarily strong leadership denied it by the then, and still current political system of an unmanageably large number of councillors. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the one person who has made a difference has now been appointed by Edinburgh.

Chief executive Sue Bruce was enabled to introduce significant change in Aberdeen only after external intervention following the near financial collapse of the city council, using previously unavailable centralised power invested in her position with the tacit support of the elected leadership. She will make a big difference to Edinburgh, bringing a fresh approach and direction but I fear the democratic difficulties that bedevil our councils will still put the brakes on reform of public services in the capital.

In Dundee, the only politician the public is likely to recognise is one who doesn't even represent the city, once seen impersonating a cat on reality TV. Even though the City Chambers and Caird Hall resemble the Kremlin, the city council simply does not have the power that would make a real difference to the City of Discovery.

And what of Glasgow? OK, we can accept that Steven Purcell was seen as a mayor and treated as one but the sometimes shabby internal political compromises had to engineer to appease the unworkably large number of councillors has left a sorry legacy that threatens to dilute the democratic power of his successor, not strengthen it.

The conclusion from these examples is obvious: our cities deserve stronger leadership, as they strive to find positive routes out of economic crisis. They need to have the political power that enables world cities to tackle crises without the need to go cap in hand to national government. Not that our national politicians, either MSPs or MPs have a great record of supporting their cities, other than a few notable exceptions - such as Margo MacDonald's success in securing a capital city supplement for Edinburgh.

It is impossible to point to a single occasion when our MSPs or MPs have set aside tribal party division and worked together for the city's greater good. Why can't they grasp the opportunity that the tight political arithmetic of the Scottish Parliament presents them by organising to form strong, powerful and influential city caucuses that can make the case for projects in their own cities? Secure the budget, make the improvements and then argue about who was responsible, rather than arguing about what benefits can be achieved as the cities stand still.

For example, in Edinburgh wouldn't it just be capital to see all of the city's MSPs working together on an agreed investment plan to improve transport infrastructure, rather than simply contributing to the many, disparate voices that dominate that debate? Each of the other core cities would also benefit from such collective action, and would be strengthened immeasurably by the election of a mayor to act as both lead voice and focus, regardless of party interest.

Led by an elected mayor, Edinburgh could also tackle the difficulties described by Bill Jamieson in his analysis of an over-reliance on the financial services sector, which itself is a neat mirror image of Scotland's over-reliance on the public sector. Both of these problems require the same action - diversification, to move from reliance to resilience. However, the political system our cities suffer does not encourage nor enable the type of diversity of thought or action that a directly elected mayor, working with committed national politicians, can bring.

As each of the city councils seeks to make its contribution to the drive back towards sustainable growth while implementing real cuts in public service costs, they must all shrink their workforce, by an average of 1,000 people. A powerful and imaginative mayor could provide the drive and determination to not only ensure swift action but more importantly, to use that change as an opportunity to turn around Scotland's embarrassingly low birth and growth rate for small and medium-sized enterprises, while at the same time reducing our over-reliance on the public sector, with a workforce planning programme that could spin out small companies and social enterprises from the councils in a manner similar to that done by our universities.

The time for Scotland's cities to join the rest of the world and elect mayors has arrived, along with the opportunity for our MSPs and MPs to take a leaf from the UK coalition government's book, set aside their party differences and fuel these engines of our economy”.

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