Imposing elected mayors risks alienation, political commentator warns

Central government imposing elected mayors in areas without popular support risks alienating people from the democratic process, political commentator Matthew Parris has warned.

Political commentator Matthew Parris speaking at the IED Annual Conference 2017 this morning
Political commentator Matthew Parris speaking at the IED Annual Conference 2017 this morning

The Times columnist and former Conservative MP was speaking at the Institute of Economic Development Annual Conference 2017 in London this morning about the unequal progress of elected mayors in English cities.

Six new ‘metro mayors’, most with strategic planning and economic development powers, were elected last May in city regions including Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands.

However, some areas, like Sheffield, Leeds and the North East are still waiting for their first mayoral elections.

Recalling that a number of local referendums in English cities had rejected elected mayors, Parris said: "In a democracy like ours, the cost of simply imposing local mayors everywhere where central government or even local government thinks it would be a good idea … in terms of people feeling entirely alienated from the democratic process, are so great that it’s probably worth paying the cost of inequitable advance, with some places having stuff that other places don’t have, in order to maintain some semblance of the idea that people get things because they want them."

Parris said a "bigger problem" than that of democratic mandate was "people actually understanding what these bodies are for and what these people do".

He said when campaigning with West Midlands mayor Andy Street last year, many members of the public were confused about the mayor’s role and powers and the area he would have jurisdiction over.

He said: "The problem of reducing the democratic structures we’re implementing to shapes that the public can understand is one that I think we have barely begun to grapple with."

The success of the mayoralty would depend largely on the individuals occupying the post, such as Boris Johnson in London, than a list of responsibilities and powers, he added.

At another session, Richard Yorke, director of analytics at real estate information service CoStar, said local areas with "strong educational and technological credentials" were "especially attractive" for investors.

Yorke outlined a list of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) that were the most successful in terms of office occupancy rates, with the Oxfordshire LEP top, followed by the West of England LEP and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. In terms of office investment rates, London was the best-performing followed by the Enterprise M3 LEP.

Speaking about why tech firms go to particular locations, Yorke said: "The number one thing was always talent – the depth and accessibility of the talent pool.  Linked to that is schooling and apprenticeships and education.

"Skills are absolutely crucial to attracting these kinds of occupiers. Also having the right kind of infrastructure in place with access to markets and other cities is absolutely critical."

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