‘A symbolic moment has passed’: Prospective city mayors have missed the chance to champion tech

In three weeks, voters in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool get to choose new mayors, but you’d be hard pushed to find much mention of tech in their manifestos, says David Walker. He asks if there’s a reason for their seemingly half-hearted approach to IT.

Manchester is one of the city regions voting for a new mayor – Photo credit: Parrot of Doom, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Connectivity plays big in the manifestos of most candidates for the new mayoral roles in England’s city regions – but it’s the physical not the digital kind. Buses, bridges and housebuilding win out over data and IT.

It is, perhaps, unfair to read too much into contests for roles that are as yet undefined, but for suppliers and prophets of the connected future, the signs are not auspicious.

Indeed, you’ll look long and hard at the election campaigns to find much sign of technology enthusiasm of the New Local Government Network and its vision of wired-up, joined-up cities and public services.

High-speed broadband and 5G do get the occasional mention – for example in the plans set out by the Tory bidding to become West Midlands leader, ex-John Lewis boss Andy Street.

Andy Burnham, the Labour MP shaping up to become Greater Manchester mayor, is, meanwhile, pushing technical education in the hope of better equipping the rising generations to secure employment in the brave, new world.

But the elections are going to disappoint those hoping these positions – big in influence and symbolic push if not cash spend – might give impetus to the data and tech agenda within local government, or advance communications consciousness in the economy and society of urban England.

It’s business as usual, albeit at the bigger scale of the city regions, rather than urban transformation.

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The elections will see voters in the counties of England, in Scotland and Wales and in a handful of unitary councils including Cornwall, Durham and Wiltshire choose new councils.

Those in the city regions around Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool will choose mayors to lead combined authorities; also in Tees Valley (Hartlepool, Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Darlington and Stockton), Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England (Bath, south Gloucestershire, north east Somerset and – it already has its own city mayor – Bristol).

There are big differences in powers and potential between these areas.

The mayors’ effectiveness will mostly depend on whether the constituent councils play ball. They will keep most of the spending power, which is why some observers predict turnout is unlikely to creep much over 30%.

Greater Manchester looks the ripest of the candidates, based on longstanding collaboration between its metropolitan districts, its embryonic combined authority and other public services, especially the NHS. The West Midlands, by contrast, is fractious, with little love lost between Birmingham City, Wolverhampton, Coventry and the rest.

“It’s not that the mayors are indifferent… But a symbolic moment has passed”

The mayors will have some leverage; they can put 2p extra on property rates – provided the proceeds are reserved for transport and have been approved by local business.

Physical ‘connectivity’ is the focus; wonks close to the action, such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, have concentrated on what the mayors might do to boost housing, road and rail and largely ignored data and technology.

It’s not that the mayors are indifferent to speeding up broadband, or will ignore data-led opportunities to integrate services in their areas. But a symbolic moment has passed. They have not said much or led much about the tech future as imagined by the likes of the NLGN.

In the think tank’s recent report, Tomorrow’s Places, Bob Kerslake, president of the Local Government Association, talked glowingly of the power of technology and smart capabilities transforming places.

But to judge by their manifestos and campaigns these metro mayors look unlikely to be heading up smart cities – it’s all a bit half hearted.

And that could be because in recent months Whitehall and Westminster have been backtracking.

When London School of Economics expert Tony Travers calculated the number of mentions of regions, mayors and local devolution since last summer, and compared it to those under Cameron, he found they had fallen sharply away.

And in the background hovers the question of whether power is really being devolved within England; whether the metro mayors are the wave of the future – or an embarrassing holdover from George Osborne’s brief period of enthusiasm for the Northern Powerhouse before he became a London newspaper editor.

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