The Tories want to change how we elect England’s mayors. Does it matter?

Counting the votes at the 2012 London mayoral election. Image: Getty.

On a recent edition of Skylines, the entirely excellent CityMetric podcast, the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush made a prediction: that a future Conservative government may wish to rethink how England elects its various mayors.

At the moment, mayoral elections – as well as those for police & crime commissioners (PCC) – use the supplementary vote system. Voters choose first and second preferences; if no candidate gets 50 per cent, the top two candidates go to a run off, and everyone else’s votes are redistributed by second preferences. Stephen’s theory was that the Tories, concerned about the likelihood of their being anyone’s second preference, may prefer to stick to good old-fashioned first-past-the-post, which would enable them to win on 40 per cent of the vote.

And so it came to pass. From pages 41-2 of the new manifesto:

Our democratic institutions may be ancient but should not be neglected. We will continue to modernise and improve our electoral registration process, making it as accessible as possible so that every voice counts... We will retain the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections.

The Tories are all but certain to win this June’s general election, with a pretty healthy majority, so we can assume that this is now government policy. So, to quote a good Salford lad – what difference does it make?

A bad day to be an independent mayoral candidate

Well, ostensibly, not a lot. Stephen’s theory for why the Tories might do this is probably the right one: UKIP is dying, so there are now definitively more left-leaning parties than right-leaning ones. As a result, it’s easier to imagine a Labour or LibDem candidate coming a close second in the first round but then winning the run-off, than it is to imagine a Tory doing the same.

Does this actually hold up in practice, though? So far, we’ve had five London mayoral elections. In every one, the candidate who won the first round also won the run-off. The same applies in all six of the metro mayoral elections held earlier this month, too.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, however – and in some of the smaller elections that have used supplementary vote, the second placed candidate did indeed go onto win. Labour’s former deputy prime minister John Prescott, for example, was leading the 2012 Humberside Police & Crime Commissioner election after the first round, but lost to a Tory on the second.

In all, according to data emanating from the New Statesman’s politics desk, there are eight such elections where the voting system came into play. Under first-past-the-post, Labour would have won three more PCCs and two mayoralties; the Tories would have won three more PCCs.

All these figures are net, as some see the big parties swapping among themselves. The big losers, though, were the independents. They’ve historically done pretty well in English mayoral elections: think Ken Livingstone in London in 2000, George Ferguson in Bristol in 2012 or H’Angus the Monkey (yes) in Hartlepool in 2002.

A graphic showing the history of England’s mayoralties, to 2016. Image: Matthew Smith.

The key example when considering the impact of the voting system, though, is rather less famous. Tony Egginton was elected as the independent mayor of Mansfield in 2002, coming a close second in the first round, but winning comfortably on transfers. In 2007, he won re-election pretty comfortably, coming first in the front round; Mansfield has had independent mayors ever since.

I’m not convinced this would have happened in a first-past-the-post system. It would have been much easier for the big parties to play the “independents can’t win here” card. Mansfield would have elected a Tory or (more likely) Labour mayor in 2002, and the independents would never have been a factor.

In other words, using first-past-the-post probably locks in the two-party system that seemed, for a while, to be on its last legs.

Imagine a London Assembly without Greens

There’s another elected body now facing a chance in its electoral system, where the losers are likely to be smaller parties. The London Assembly’s job is to scrutinise the mayor of London. Its elections have historically taken place under the Additional Member System, a form of proportional representation. Of its 25 members, 14 have geographical constituencies; another 11 “London-wide” members are chosen from party lists, in order to make the body more proportional.

Labour and the Tories have dominated the London Assembly – not surprising, as they also dominate the London electorate. But it’s generally had between four and nine members from smaller parties, all chosen under the top-up element.

Tory sources are now briefing that this too will be elected under first-past-the-post in future. If so, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine UKIP or the Greens winning seats again. The LibDems could plausibly carry one in London’s south west suburbs; more likely, though, they won’t. Future London Assemblies will almost certainly consist of one party which supports the mayor and another which opposes them – and that’s it.


The case for the defence

Does it matter? In terms of what it actually means day to day, probably not. Holding previous elections under first-past-the-post would have changed relatively few election results.

What’s more, there is a good reason for ditching supplementary vote: it’s a terrible system. It’s relatively hard to understand (I’ve written half a dozen articles about it by now, and still haven’t come up with a pithy way of explaining it in a sentence).

And if you want your second preference to count, you have to guess who will be in the second round. It’s likely that in the West of England earlier this month, there were a fair few second preference votes for Lib Dem Stephen Williams. It’s entirely plausible that, had he made the run-off, he could have been mayor. But he came third: those second preferences were never even counted.

So – there is an argument that first-past-the-post is just better.

Moreover, I’m not quite buying the idea that it’ll undermine the strength of the London Assembly, because – through no fault of its members, many of whom have done some truly excellent work – that body is pretty weak anyway.

Sure, in the past it’s tried very hard to hold the mayors to account – but the operative word there is “try”. London Assembly members published many compelling reports about the sloppiness of Boris Johnson’s administration. But did those reports translate into practical improvements? Would the world have been significantly worse if they’d never existed? I’m not convinced. The obvious contempt Johnson showed at his regular question times is not suggestive of a man who felt he was actually accountable to London Assembly.

The case for the prosecution

That said: this policy does, to put it mildly, smell a bit. Taken with other constitutional changes proposed by the manifesto – the decrease in the number of MPs, requiring voters to provide ID to prevent entirely fictional fraud, etc. – it looks like an attempt to increase the Tories’ chances of holding onto power.

So yes, it matters. At the very least, it benefits the big two at the expense of smaller parties. More than that, it fits with a general sense that Theresa May doesn’t really believe in the constitutional function of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”.

As someone who writes about cities, I can’t bring myself to get worked up about this. As someone who has to live in this country, I think it stinks.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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