The former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s recent City of Sydney CityTalk address contained a strong argument for greater investment in education, infrastructure and sustainable transport to tackle climate change, but he made another important comment on city management in the Q&A session afterwards. As a result it did not appear in the published version of his talk and has therefore not received the attention it deserves.
Livingstone was musing how his position as a popularly elected mayor contributed to his sweeping reforms of planning, public transport and other areas of service delivery in the UK capital. He noted that the extensive powers devolved by the UK government in setting up the position certainly helped, but another key factor was the way in which the position had been structured.
He observed that as a member of the British Labour Party he had spent most of his political life making deals “inside the building” as he put it, within the party room and caucus, both inevitable features of the Westminster system and very similar to their counterparts at the state and federal levels in Australia.
Livingstone pointed out that the reinstated and radically reformed position – in effect the creation of a directly elected executive mayor – had forced him to look “outside the building” for the first time.
He had been required to negotiate and build alliances directly with organisations and structures that were not necessarily part of the political system, as well as with the wider community, to build support for his policies. Livingstone concluded that this aspect of accountability contributed to making a directly-elected mayor an ideal city manager.
The initial reaction among many in the audience after his address was admiration for the results Livingstone had achieved mixed with an almost-universal attitude of “obviously it’ll never happen here”. This is due to the remote prospect of any Australian state government creating a directly-elected metropolitan-wide position that could be seen as a competitor.
However, Livingstone’s perspective is still food for thought. With the partial experience of Brisbane, no major Australian city has a single entity, elected or not, with sole responsibility for city management, in particular around key planning and transport issues. Most of the key decisions are still made not only within state governments, but firmly “inside the building”.
The apparent success of Livingstone’s London “experiment” should make state governments and councils in Australia look outside their own buildings a bit more, to reassess their perspectives on urban management and consider experimenting with different forms of more direct and accountable metropolitan governance.