Power trip: Do Northern cities actually want mayors?


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There is something wonderfully muscular and exhilarating about the idea of a “Northern powerhouse”, even coming from the ever-so-slightly effete lips of George Osborne.

It conjures up a new industrial revolution, a sort of “White Heat” future, with railways criss-crossing the North, this time linking not mills, docks and blast furnaces, but web workshops, university campuses and vast shopping malls. Manchester, we learn, is now to be Greater Manchester again, equipped with its own powerful, directly elected mayor and some Treasury money to spend, too.

The Conservatives may have shut every pit in the North of England, but now they are promising a London-style Oyster card to make bus and train journeys easier. It is as if the ghost of Joe Chamberlain, great municipal entrepreneur of Brummagem, were astride the land again. Imagine the thrill of the “Northern Boris” when he, or she, eventually emerges. It is all a long way from the time when one of the Chancellor’s predecessors, Sir Geoffrey Howe, during the most dismal phase of Thatcherism, wondered quietly whether it might be better, all things considered, to leave these old Northern cities to rot. Then again, Mr Osborne is that rare thing; a Tory cabinet minister representing a Northern seat, albeit in rather sedate Cheshire, and one who knows the political prize the North represents to his party, long since written off by the voters there.

In truth, the London mayoralty did much good for London under Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, with successful experiments such as the congestion charge, “Boris bikes” and new buses. So Mr Osborne’s first step in creating his powerhouse is to persuade the people of Greater Manchester that they want a directly elected mayor. People in Manchester, like those in Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield, said “no thanks” the last time they were asked. Maybe they will vote for one now; but voting Tory at the general election may be a journey too far for them.