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The Place Race

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BORIS
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Every major city in Britain, bar two, turned its back on the idea of elected mayors last year. I believe they will be proved to have been wrong to do so.

As a Conservative brainchild the idea was probably never going to fly. But this doesn't mean that Cameron doesn't get cities and their importance to the UK economy. But what is he prepared to do about it?

I worked on the launch of the International Festival For Business last week in Liverpool, one of the two cities outside London to have its own mayor, and the Prime Minister was there to launch it.

He presented cities as the engine room of recovery saying that "our cities will be vital and it is the cities that really focus on being great places to live, great places to invest and great places to work that will succeed."

He is right, but, despite the new City Deals, I am not sure that our cities have the muscle we need them to.

Today's austerity cuts come after decades of successive governments weakening cities by reducing the local tax take and diminishing legislative powers, while providing prescriptive and restrictive local finance settlements.

Whitehall planners will no doubt revel in the administrative harmony and conformity, but this has been at the expense of local independence and innovation. Cloning and commoditizing was probably never the intention but it is clearly the risk as one city becomes very much like another.

It wasn't always thus. Just a couple of lifetimes ago British cities were the super brands of their day. 'Made in Sheffield' was the Apple of its day. Not now and that's why we need to reinvent our cities to give them the firepower to do the job.

Despite a regeneration-led rally the reputational damage of longer-term decline has been vast and often the perception of cities as rust belt relics is completely out of date with the reality on the ground.

Most cities are just not equipped to get a game-changing message out there. Who is the communicator in chief who sells the city brand in the same way as say Sir Richard Branson sells Virgin?

Enter the mayor. A leader to speak for the city, to make deals on its behalf, to sharpen its message and to stand it out from the crowd.

It's a big job. As the Chief Executive of one mid-sized city told me, with a work force of 30,000 and a budget that would place his city in the highest echelons of the FTSE 100 if it were a company, why would we not want to take it more seriously? What would New York's Mayor Bloomberg make of a system founded on the ideal of the part-time politician as British local government is?

In his Liverpool speech the Prime Minister said, "We have to recognise that we are in a global competition and some countries will make it and some will not."

That race is one from recession to recovery. It will be an urban recovery so it will be the best-equipped cities that are going to lead it. Liverpool has its Mayor in Joe Andersen and that fact alone makes him one of Labour's most powerful leaders and helps to differentiate the city.

Down by the riverside you really do get a sense of the scale and success of the Liverpool's recent regeneration projects. It is a stunning and powerful vista of urban transformation. The future is about selling this asset harder and it's a job made easier with a mayor to promote its message.

In a world where perception and reputation are king, the successful cities of the future will have more to do with developing powerful urban brands that they can sell than erecting new buildings. Make no mistake, this is no longer about bricks and mortar. The best stories will win and mayors are best placed to be the story-tellers.

But it's a tough message for a Tory to win. The Prime Minister mustered the vision of a future Conservative Mayor for Liverpool. This unlikely prospect was his best gag of the day and he knew it.

But the future of Britain's cities is no joke as the last laugh will go to those with the singular focus to do what it takes to win the global place race.

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