What next for city governance?

In the aftermath of the failed mayoral referenda last year, it might seem that debates about city governance are strictly academic. Yet this month has demonstrated that there is continuing interest in city leaders.

Nottingham: low mayoral referendum turnout
Nottingham: low mayoral referendum turnout

George Ferguson celebrated his first anniversary as Bristol's mayor live on radio, Bill de Blasio's victory in New York was global news, and Rob Ford's "antics" in Toronto continue to shock international audiences. So, as we move into a pre-election year and interest in "phased devolution" grows, where next for England's city leaders?

Short-term, policy attention is turning to growth deals and the next stage of devolution. Governance that gives politicians confidence that money can be spent efficiently and effectively, as well as accounted for, will be a clear condition of further devolution.

Longer term, looking towards and beyond the 2015 election, governance is at the heart of debates about what would encourage central government to devolve more power.

Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) seem set to stay, but questions remain about how effective many of them are, whether they all have the right geography and what role they can have in planning decisions where democratic accountability is critical.

Combined authorities are an attractive option because they provide clarity about democratic accountability and shared decision-making across boundaries, although challenges are raised where they are not co-terminous with LEP boundaries.

Many areas will not opt for combined authorities, however, so politicians and officials are interested in alternatives such as joint committees that can demonstrate democratic accountability, close working with LEPs and the ability to take tough decisions.

And of course there is the mayoral model. Few politicians would countenance another referendum so soon after last year's debacle (turnout was less than 25 per cent in Manchester and Nottingham). Nevertheless, having one identifiable city leader with a mandate for change and the ability to bring people and organisations together to make strategic decisions has significant benefits, particularly if it's a "metro mayor" rather than one based on council boundaries alone.

One of the biggest questions is how much there will be insistence on everywhere being the same. Historically, a major barrier to devolution has been prizing elegance over pragmatism, uniformity over effectiveness. So will politicians allow multiple models?

In a year in which pressure on political parties to show how they will deliver jobs and growth is going to intensify, and noise about devolution to Wales and Scotland will grow louder, having a clear story about how city leadership could deliver a higher quality of life matters. For any area interested in gaining more powers, taking more than an academic interest in how your area's governance can best win the confidence of this and the next government could reap long-term dividends.

Alexandra Jones is chief executive of Centre for Cities.

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