Recent signs have been good that a new spirit of municipal entrepreneurship is starting to emerge amongst political leaders in local government.
Significant debate is taking place about devolution and the wider role local government should play in society. Whilst discussions centre around freedoms, funding and powers, it is important to also ask for what purpose? And what can councils actually deliver?
When discussing what can be achieved by entrepreneurial political leaders, most commentators would point to Joseph Chamberlain as a shining example. However, on a recent trip to New York I came across a plaque to one of that city’s great leaders, which set me thinking about just what can be achieved if political vision, boldness and ambition can be channelled in the right direction.
The start of the 20th century saw George Brinton McClellan Jnr elected as 93rd Mayor of New York City. During his administration he acquired 277 acres of parkland, completed construction of the New York Public Library, built Grand Central Terminal, presided over the opening of the subway system, licensed the first taxi cab, opened the Queensboro and Manhattan bridges, installed the world’s first high pressure water service to fight fires, replaced the gas street lamp system with electric, built 19 new fire houses, 110 school buildings, 11 new high schools, and constructed 35 miles of new wharfage, including 51 piers. These remarkable achievements were not made over a couple of decades but between 1904 and 1909. This period changed the city's landscape beyond recognition.
Whilst local government in the UK does not have responsibility for some of these services anymore and now more than ever has to collaborate with partners to achieve its goals, it is the scale of the ambition of the programme of works that is impressive in transforming a place for the public good.
My view is that the fact that George McClellan Jnr was a mayor is irrelevant; he could just as easily have been a council leader. What is important is to devolve enough power to local authorities to allow leaders to develop a vision for their area and create the capacity to set about transforming that place over the lifetime of an administration.
In the lead up to next year’s General Election, it will be interesting to see if the political parties incorporate devolution into their manifestos in a meaningful way.