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1. Placelessness: Civicism and Social Identity

One explanation for the rise of the importance of elected mayors is globalisation which has, allegedly, removed all kinds of barriers of space and time and generated a world where every place looks the same and everyone is connected to everyone else. ‘Think Global Act Local’ is the phrase that attempts to transcend this conundrum: how to retain some degree of political, economic or social independence when the seismic shifts that appear to command and control world events are controlled in some other place. In effect, the geographic location appears irrelevant – we appear to live literally in a placeless location.

Yet this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1800 only three per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. In 2012 22 per cent of the world’s population currently live in 600 cities and generate 60 per cent of the world’s GDP. The number of megacities (more than 10 million inhabitants) is set to double over the next 10-20 years and the greatest growth will be in Asia. It is predicted that 40 per cent (590 million) of Indians will live in cities by 2030. As a stark example, the Chinese city ofChengdu had a population of under a million in 1950; in 2012 seven million lived in the city and a further seven million on the outskirts. So rapid has been the growth that Chengdu’s mayor, Ge Honglin, has begun improving the infrastructure of the surrounding rural areas to encourage people to stay in the countryside and not migrate to the city. As a consequence Ge Honglin has claimed that Chengdu is the only Chinese city that has combined rapid economic growth and narrowed the urban-rural income gap (Webster and Burke, 2012: 36-7).

The rise of the city has been called the new ‘civicism’ by Bell and Shalit (2010) and they allude to the similarities to the Ancient Greek polities – the city states of Athens, Sparta and the like. ‘The like’, according to Bell and Shalit is an understatement because many people have an emotional affinity with a city that is most aptly captured in the spread of the
‘I Love New York’ or ‘I Love London’ T-shirts and so on. Certainly Glaeser (2011: 269) argues that the density of city living encourages the spontaneous face to face connections that facilitate such high levels of innovation amongst well educated citizens because, ultimately, ‘our ability to connect with one another is the defining characteristic of our species.’

Elected mayors tend to combine several aspects of this global development that both incorporate and transcend it. They are usually associated with cities: the drivers of globalisation, the centres of innovation and the places that – alone – seem capable of imposing their will and identity upon the anonymous nature of globalisation. In other words, elected
mayors offer the possibility of displacing the Placeless nature of contemporary life with a Place to call home. Mayor Stephen Mandel of the City of Edmonton in Canada reflected this issue in his argument that:

Mayors are elected to have a city-wide focus. They are looked to as the leaders of the city, they are the major spokespeople of governance, budgetary and policy issues. They act as the city’s official representative and spokesperson on intergovernmental relationships and major city issues. The position requires an ability to use moral persuasion than actual power, but it offers significant opportunities, because of the platform, to advance a strategic vision.

Stuart Drummond (independent mayor of Hartlepool) also captured this aspect well: ‘The public see the mayor as the representative for the town, the person who can make a difference; the mayor plays a big ambassadorial role, representing the town, tourism, local businesses, council at a regional level.’ Or, as Steve Bullock suggested, he was ‘Mayor of Lewisham not the Leader of Lewisham Council.’ (5) Fiona Skene, Director of Human Resources at Leicester City, talks of the same issue of place:

The mayor needs to take care of partnerships, be an ambassador and take a strategic role. The head of paid service role is best left with an officer having the influence of the mayor. Management of the day-to-day organisation should be left to an officer but the running of the city to the mayor... Council leaders are chosen for political reasons not for their leadership. Mayors are more about leadership but it is important to ensure the right person is elected – this is very important.

The switch from a council leader to a mayor can also appear to inject some rather indefinable dynamic into the place. ‘It is all fairly intangible’, suggested Sir Peter Soulsby (Labour City Mayor of Leicester):

Maybe because it is too early to really tell, but there is now a real sense of momentum, direction and purpose. There are now cultural debates – a real buzz in the city – it’s not just about buildings but what happens around them. There is now a feeling of going somewhere with very positive feedback from the “meet-the-mayor” meetings.’ Mohammed Dawood, Assistant Mayor in Leicester, supported this assumption: ‘The “Meet-the-Mayor” event does have its downfalls but overall it gives everyone an opportunity to debate and be engaged, but the mayor and the councillors can’t rehearse! It gives the public an opportunity to air their grievances.

Part of the debate, therefore, is about the appropriate ‘place’ for executive mayors and indeed, the importance of place generally in local government (Brookes, 2010). The origins of democracy itself clearly lay with the Ancient
Greek city states (Dunn, 1994) and the general concern that mayors should be restricted to the city state equivalents in contemporary society – the large cities – are distant refractions of these earlier memories. They also pose crucial questions about the precise nature of those boundaries: cities may be geographically clear but often the socio-economic boundary that supports the same city may be significantly larger. If this is the case then aligning the boundaries of the mayoral reach with that of the socio-economic region seems to be a selfevident issue. Here we may turn to the likes of Sassen (2001) who has argued that the city, especially ‘global cities’, are the place where the global economy is distilled into the local and at the very same time it undermines the role of the nation state. In effect the global and the local are captured in the same geographical space by the rise of the city.

It is for this reason that Greg Clark, the coalition government’s ‘cities minister’ suggested that:

Today the great challenge before us is one of economic growth, and I’m convinced that the battle for Britain’s prosperity will be won or lost in Britain’s cities... the world’s great cities have mayors who lead their city on the international stage, attracting investment and jobs.

(quoted in Reid, 2012: 1). This also explains the ‘city deals’ that are on offer to particular cities and accounts for Liverpool council’s decision to adopt the mayoral model in advance of the May referendum.