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Case for elected mayors in our cities

THE most exciting thing to have happened in Scotland so far this year has been Glasgow's success in beating off 29 other cities to win the UK City of the Future award.

The Science Minister, David Willetts, predicted that the award would turn Glasgow into a model of "what a future city could be like and how it could run".

He was careful not to say how it could be run, but I think this is important too. Scottish cities currently operate on a double-track model; the Lord Provost is the figurehead, the public face of the city, but the real political power lies with the council leader.

I'm not sure this dual approach has worked very efficiently. Certainly I know that 45 miles to the east of Glasgow, a lot of citizens in the capital think that the great tram debacle might have been avoided if Edinburgh had been run by an elected city boss. And there can be little doubt that two contrasting figures, first Ken Livingstone and then Boris Johnson, have between them successfully helped to transform London into the vibrant, successful world city that it now is. But I'm also well aware that there is a deep suspicion of what might be called the elected mayor model. Citizens in several English towns last year declined the chance to have a directly elected city leader, and in the US in particular mayors were often corrupt and venal figures, bywords for sleazy Tammany Hall politics of the most lurid kind. But that has changed. New York, for example, has benefited enormously from the leadership of a series of effective and visionary, if very different, mayors.

In many parts of the world the city mayor can now be seen as a more dynamic and useful leader than the prime minister or president who leads the sovereign state, to the extent that there is an informal grouping of the world's leading mayors, who find it useful to collaborate and network and swap ideas. They are people who pride themselves on getting things done and often they seem to be more practical and useful politicians than the people who head up the actual countries.

And yet surprisingly few successful city bosses have gone on to lead their countries. An interesting exception is Recep Erdogan, the very astute and far-sighted prime minister of Turkey, who was earlier a notably successful mayor of Istanbul.

So while nation states are pretty bad at getting on together, even within an organisation like the European Union, cities are beginning to realise that national boundaries don't necessarily mean very much. Indeed cities, lacking all the baggage of national pride and the hang-ups of state sovereignty, will more and more be able to co-operate in a truly transnational way. Such co-operation may well be the best mid-term hope for our planet's future.

More than half the world's population now lives in cities. Of course this isn't a pleasant experience for many, maybe most, of them and nobody should be starry-eyed about life in the world's multiplicity of urban slums. For far too many citizens of cities existence is still a desperate struggle lived out amid squalor, violence and destitution. And cities are rarely clean or green places. While just over half the global population lives in them, more than 80% of the world's energy is consumed in cities, much of it very wastefully. Cities are responsible for the bulk of global carbon emissions. As more and more cities get better at governing themselves, and co-operating with each other, this will be one of the key issues they will have to confront.

Meanwhile Glasgow's success as the UK's City of the Future will result in a grant of £24 million from the Government's Technology Strategy Board. This should lead to the development of new "city life" technologies which will not only benefit the people of Glasgow itself, but may well be exported right round the globe. I'm sure that mayors all over the world will be watching developments with considerable interest.

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Local government

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