Liverpool plans to shake off its past

11 Nov 99
The message from Liverpool this week was that the city of Derek Hatton, the Militant Tendency and local government anarchy is finally dead.

12 November 1999

The new Liverpool has emerged from its past political disasters as the crucible for a quiet revolution which is almost post-Blairite. After six months of cogitation, the country's first independent democracy commission has produced a radical blueprint for the city's future governance that outstrips the government's modernising agenda.

The commission, set up earlier this year to rejuvenate local democracy, was led by a team of 15 local figures from business, politics and the media. Its recommendations, published on November 8, deliver an important boost to ministers eager to push the boundaries of local government reform, and food for thought for the more recalcitrant of the city's councillors.

They may also set the pattern for other cities watching with interest. At the press conference to launch the commission's report, The Leading of Liverpool, it was noticeable that the media were almost outnumbered by luminaries from other local authorities.

The headline-grabbing issue is undoubtedly the race to install a directly elected mayor for Liverpool. Four out of five of those who gave evidence favoured the idea. The commission is keen for Liverpool to be the first city outside London to hold a referendum, planned for next autumn, with mayoral elections following in 2001. Its recommendations mirror the government's proposals in the draft Local Government (Organisation & Standards) Bill, published this year.

But it also suggests that the mayor be allowed to co-opt executive or cabinet members from outside the council. This, according to the commission, will break the 'institutional cosiness' of party politics and allow the mayor to select from 'a wider pool of talent'. What it will also do is raise cries of 'undemocratic' from Tony Blair's celebrated 'forces of conservatism'.

The endorsement of a mayor for Liverpool is only part of the commission's package of reforms and is certainly not the most radical nor the one most likely to have councillors rocking in their comfortable armchairs.

Front-runner here is the proposal to devolve power to 25 neighbourhood councils, similar to the models used in Barcelona and New York.

The neighbourhood councils would provide a 'grass-roots' conduit between the community and the council, and would be consulted on all major policy programmes. They would also have limited financial autonomy and the ability to levy a local precept. Liverpool's current 99 members would be reduced to 35, 25 directly elected to chair the new councils and ten 'at large' members elected from a city-wide list.

It is not the commission that will make the final decision. That will be left to the council and to the people of Liverpool, which may be little comfort to the entrenched backwoodsmen.

The Liberal Democrat leader of the council, Mike Storey, is a well-known supporter of mayors and has confirmed that he would stand for election. But even he has indicated that some of the commission's recommendations make him nervous. According to well-informed sources, he also faces a rearguard of opposition, including several senior council members.

Storey may find an unusual ally in the Labour group leader, Gideon Ben-Tovim, also a supporter of mayors, who has already warned that the commission's proposals come as a 'comprehensive package' and must be publicly debated as such. 'People must have a proper opportunity to decide the sort of governance they want,' he said.

The two leaders appear to have won some breathing space and have set up an all-party committee to debate the proposals. The Improvement and Development Agency is also in negotiations with the council to send in a team of independent experts to devise a practical model for a mayoral regime.

It remains to be seen how far the council will take the commission's proposals. But Hilary Armstrong, the local government minister, has already conceded that such independent public consultations, using a combination of a select commission, opinion polls and a citizen's jury, could provide a template for other authorities.

'The report goes much further than the government's proposals but that's the way it should be,' she said. 'We are getting a further stage of reform and I think there are some ideas which I hope my colleagues at Westminster will examine.'

Birmingham's Labour leader, Albert Bore, has already realised that an independent commission is the only way to push through proposals for a directly elected mayor. It is up to the people to decide, he says, knowing full well that council members couldn't afford openly to defy the express wishes of the voters.

Chaired by Sir Adrian Cadbury, Birmingham's commission is a smaller version of Liverpool's, with members from the local university, health trusts and voluntary sector. It is due to report to the council by January.

But Bore, having already established his intention to stand as mayor, predicts that it will probably lead Birmingham down the same route as Liverpool. Such change, he has claimed, is now inevitable.


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