Mayors ruling the world? No thanks

Mayors gather at a planning session for the Global Parliament of Mayors. Image: GPM.

In September, the first planning session of the Global Parliament of Mayors took place in Amsterdam: a conference about mayors, for mayors, attended by mayors, moderated by mayors and hosted by a mayor, all triggered by a book about mayors: If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities by Benjamin Barber.

In this book, the current political system and its leaders are dismissed as dysfunctional. Defined by borders and with an inevitable focus on national interests, they are not an effective vehicle to govern a world defined by interdependence. Mayors, presiding over cities with their more open, networked structure and cosmopolitan demographics could do it better – or so the book argues.

Yet it's difficult imagine how a world governed by cities could be a viable alternative to a world governed by nations. The current generation of mayors may well be successful precisely because they do not rule the world; because they can focus on smaller, more immediate, more local responsibilities, which means that their efforts generate quicker and more visible results. It seems unwise to remove that focus by giving them global responsibilities.

Giving mayors a greater slice of world governance also raises democratic concerns. Just over half the world’s population lives in cities. That's an impressive proportion, but it also means that the other half does not live in cities – so if a mayoral parliament did have extensive powers, who would represent the other half? 

Another problem is that, in some countries, the mayor is not an elected figure. In the Netherlands, mayors are appointed by the national government, while in Ukraine, the mayor is simply the most highly-ranking politician in the municipality. In most countries, voter turnouts for local elections are still significantly lower than those for national elections.   

It has been claimed that cities are a more effective vehicle to deal with global problems like climate change and migration, but I fail to see how an escalation of world problems can ever be addressed through a de-escalation (from nation to city) of the scale of governance. Mayors aren't well-placed to reimagine large-scale energy strategies or tackled the root source of global migration: a fundamental global disparity of wealth.    

 

The global political system should clearly recognise which decisions should be taken at which level

The idea of a Global Parliament of Mayors raises questions, not answers.. What is the exact nature of this proposition? Historically, the idea of the parliament was invented as a dialectical instrument to control power once the necessity to separate powers had been recognized: to pass, modify or reject laws proposed by Kings or governments. So which power does the parliament of mayors control? Whose laws does or doesn’t it pass? To whom does it direct its difficult questions? Without an answer to the above questions, the proposition that mayors would rule the world through a global parliament of mayors feels like little more than a combination of recklessness and naiveté.   

In such a context, I would not advocate to replace national governments with a parliament of mayors. I would prefer to give a new relevance to the notion of subsidiary, in which the increased importance of cities is recognized and actively crafted, but where they are integrated in a global political system that clearly recognizes which decisions should be taken at which level.   

Reinier de Graaf is a partner of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. He directs the work of AMO, the research and design studio established as a counterpart to OMA’s architectural practice. Over the last several years, he has overseen OMA's planning work in several emerging cities and led AMO's research on the Megacity.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.