WHY do we have cities and how should they be run? The first question is the easier one. We have cities because they are engines of growth – not just economic growth but social progress and innovation, too.

In crude economic terms, Britain’s cities cover less than ten per cent of our land, yet they generate more than 60 per cent of the country’s economic output. Humans are manifestly more productive when we have proximity with one another, when we are densely populated, and when we are close to our neighbours. We have known this for millennia, since the emergence of the European city in the ancient Greek world of Plato and Socrates. It is why, for 2500 unbroken years since then, cities have grown ever larger and ever more dominant.

Economists have understood this for a long time. They talk about agglomeration economics – the science that tells us in academic terms what city-dwellers can see every day of the week. Networks of innovative firms, clusters of talented workers, risk-taking entrepreneurs, rapid transport networks, and all the supporting infrastructure that binds this together, from superfast broadband to supercool sandwich shops. It is the clustering of people together, footfall, the crowd that makes the city.

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Or at least, it was. Crowding together in densely populated places is – rather obviously – no longer what it used to be. For this is the age of social distancing, of working from home, of “meeting” only via Zoom. Footfall in 2021 is the journey you make from your desk to your fridge, not from your home in the suburbs to your office in the city centre. And while at least the more middle class suburbs may be thriving, with all that saved commuter income being poured into the local deli, the city centre is on its knees, hobbled, praying for a miracle.

Will it come? Perhaps. Cities have survived epidemics before. Multiple times in Shakespeare’s day, London’s theatres were closed because of plague and people fled the city. Every time, however, it was but a blip – a bump in the road rather than a change of direction. It is certainly not impossible that, when we are properly post-Covid, we will go back to something very close to the way we were before. But I have my doubts.

For all that is missing in the world of Zoom, working from home for what used to be called office-workers has never been easier. Few of us miss the rush-hour commute. Many of us are enjoying the superior work/life balance that not having to be in the office five-days-a-week offers. For sure, most of us do not want to be trapped at home (any more than we wanted to be trapped in the office). A blended future looks most appealing.

And what, then, for the city? If economists have long understood the key role cities play, most British politicians have been bizarrely ignorant of it. In contrast with Germany, the US, Canada or Australia, cities in the UK were for decades neglected. Only five years ago did Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool elect their first city-region mayors. In Scotland we still haven’t done even that. We should.

Cities are economic powerhouses: they should be political powerhouses too. Cities need champions as much as they need leaders. As much as nations and states, they need people who can represent them on the world stage, competing for business, celebrating the virtues and unique selling points which set them apart. Mayors stand up for their cities – just as Andy Burnham has been doing in recent days over Nicola Sturgeon’s latest attempted travel ban.

No disrespect to the armies of councillors who have loyally represented their wards over many years of service, but Labour’s Andy Burnham and the Tories’ Andy Street have done more to put Manchester and Birmingham on the map in five years than their respective city councils have in fifty. And the Conservatives’ Ben Houchen is working miracles in Middlesbrough and Teesside.

Glasgow and Edinburgh are in danger of falling behind not to Liverpool and Manchester: they are in danger of falling behind to Middlesbrough. Glasgow “will look at” green ports, it was reported at the weekend. Middlesbrough is well past looking at it – it is getting on with delivering it. In terms of investment and infrastructure, innovation and job-creation, what is happening in Teesside right now is extraordinary. Little wonder that the mayor was re-elected last month with 72% of the vote.

Glasgow faces two challenges that a directly elected mayor would have to put front and centre of their concerns. How to give the city centre a sense of purpose in the post-pandemic age, and how to connect the city itself to its surrounding areas to ensure prosperity for both. With retail moving first out-of-town and now online, and with the night-time economy still effectively locked down because of Covid, the city centre is going to need more than a few trees planting along Sauchiehall Street to give it the boost it is crying out for. And with the transformational change in work/life (or home/office) relations, innovative infrastructure is going to have to be a wee bit more inspired than a new bus lane here or an additional park-and-ride there.

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City centre regeneration and city-region infrastructure were both central to Glasgow’s city deal, signed between the UK and Scottish governments and eight local authorities in 2014. But, unlike the prominent mayors who are starting to punch their weight in several of England’s cities, Glasgow’s city deal is lost in a maze of anonymous bureaucracy, unloved, uncared for, and more or less completely unknown to anyone in Glasgow. The economic recovery group, anyone? How about the city centre task force? No: me neither. It’s a tragedy, but Glasgow’s £1.13 billion city deal has been so badly mismanaged it’s scarcely believable – an eye-wateringly expensive missed opportunity.

Whatever the future of our cities, and whatever challenges they may face as we emerge from the long shadow of the pandemic, our cities need leaders. They need champions. They need mayors.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.