Cities are not just economic drivers; they're social and political laboratories. Cities, and the mayors that lead them, routinely address the problems that "nation-states can’t and won’t," as political theorist Benjamin Barber, author of the upcoming book If Mayors Ruled the World, aptly said in June.
A thought-provoking recent piece by Kevin Meagher in The Guardian asks if it is "time to scrap" the office of the Mayor of London, not because it’s weak or ineffectual, but because it has been working too well since it was created a little more than decade ago.
"The London Mayoralty has been an astounding success," he writes. "First under Ken Livingstone and latterly under Boris Johnson, London has blossomed into a truly world-class city." He explains:
The value of the role is not in the administrative power. Shorn of responsibility for the usual local government challenges which remain with London's 32 boroughs, the mayor is strategic in the proper sense of the word; overseeing large-scale regeneration projects and the capital's vital transport system while providing the clout that gets London's priorities under the noses of ministers, investors and newspaper editors.
In fact, the mayoralty has been such a success that it should now be abolished.
Yes, you read that correctly. It's time to scrap the Mayor of London.
The reason is simple. London has now morphed into a city-state: autonomous, successful and happy to blaze a trail, while the rest of the country lags far behind. There are lots of historical reasons for this: the concentration of the nation's culture, finance and government will always put the capital out in front. But since 2000 the extra lobbying clout of the London mayor has accentuated these pre-existing trends. ... What London wants, London has the political heft to get.
The mayor's megaphone means that London's voice echoes in the corridors of power, the boardrooms of the capital and the news conferences of our national media. The casual assumption that London's priorities are the nation's priorities has now become an unshakeable article of faith.
Given the increasing economic gulf between London and the rest of England, and the unlikelihood that the mayors of other English cities could ever command this kind of economic and political clout, he concludes, the only way to close the "opportunity gap" between London and the rest of England is to level London down by abolishing the office of Mayor.
Although the increasing geographic inequality Meagher identifies is real, his proposed solution seems defeatist in the extreme. It makes little sense to tear London down, as its economic success as well as the growing gap between it and the rest of England is a product of the “spiky" nature of globalization [PDF definition]. For the United Kingdom to have a leading global economic and financial center — with an effective mayor’s office — can only be considered an economic advantage.
What’s needed is a strategy to spur greater development in other U.K. cities. One bright spot is that for the first time in a while many U.K. cities are growing again, including those which fall within the orbit of the Lon-Leed-Chester mega-region.
Effectiveness is a commodity that’s in far too short a supply in the world's democracies. When a political institution works so well that it outstrips its rivals, those rivals should be looking for ways to emulate it so that they can better compete with it, not tear it down.