Last night I was one of around 30 or so people who attended a seminar titled “Leading the inclusive city” hosted by Liverpool University’s Heseltine Institute and the Compass Society. The main speaker was Robin Hambleton , Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England.
Professor Hambleton persuasively argued that cities can be exciting places which promote equality and progress if they have dynamic and imaginative leadership. He gave the example of Ken Livingstone who, while Mayor of London, introduced the Congestion Charge in the face of huge opposition from a range of business and political interests. Livingston stuck to his guns and the Charge was a success, resulting in Livingston’s poll ratings increasing. A rare example of a politician increasing in popularity as the result of introducing a new tax!
As Professor Hambleton said, one of the factors which is hampering the development of cities here in the UK is that fact that we have probably the most centralised state of any Western democracy. It’s hardly surprising that turnout in local council elections is so low when the public realise that local authorities have very little power to actually change anything.
I was disappointed, although by no means surprised, that there was not one single elected member from any of the local authorities on Merseyside in the audience. Those attending were a mix of community activists, academics, voluntary sector workers and interested observers such as myself.
During the Q&A session it became clear that most people in the audience were sceptical about the merits of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse initiative. They were also less than impressed with the quality of leadership from local politicians in the Liverpool region.
So what does the future hold for our cities? There are clearly a number of issues that need to be addressed, including environmental concerns, the growing income gap and the lack of inspiration in many inner city communities. Maybe what our cities need most of all is imaginative and forceful leadership. The problem with that is that there simply aren’t enough Ken Livingstones and (dare I say it!) Boris Johnsons to go around.