A few years ago, I was in Rabat at the Afro-Cities triennial gathering. This brought together Mayors from all over Africa which is the fastest growing continent and a potential global power house for trade and commerce. In the centre of the main marquee was a huge French stand for the Francophone Mayor’s Association which had been paid for by the French Government. There were stands for the American agencies; Dutch agencies; Canadian agencies and from many other Countries. The British presence was Me and an Officer!
However, the sole speaker from outside Africa at the launch of the event was again me! (The French really didn’t like that!) The reason was that I had spent some considerable time over two years assisting the Pan-African body (United Cities & Local Government Africa) to reform after there had been difficulties with splits along language lines between English, French and Portuguese speaking mayors.
The very active President of the Francophone Mayors is the Mayor of Paris. Most of the costs of the organisation are paid for by the French Government who see Mayor to Mayor activity as a major part of their ongoing diplomatic effort. We can talk to each other without the concerns that can be expressed by Government to Government Activity. They also realise that tomorrow’s Mayor or Leader might well become tomorrow’s President or Prime Minister. I know the Prime Minister of Portugal well because he used to be active in the World body for local government as the Mayor of Lisbon.
We make a minimal contribution to the Commonwealth Local Government Forum and there is little political input into it. The Mayor of London plays no part at all in international work in the way that the Mayor of Paris does.
Countries like Holland, Canada and Sweden, all have overseas ‘aid’ activity in more than 15 Countries paid for by their respective governments. We rightly have a large aid budget but little of it goes to local government yet almost all aid is spent on local delivery. We should argue that in other Countries, as in this, that it is the council that knows its area best and can devise local programmes against local priorities.
The other area that is booming is trade activity from city region to city region. Globally Mayors and Councils have become impatient with the bureaucracy and inadequacy of international trade Ministries of central government. They seek out each other to develop relationships based not on the dated concept of twinning but on practical proposals between matching regions to expand trade, educational and cultural links.
These musings have come about because the LGA is about to appoint people to the international committees of the world movement for local government, United Cities & Local Government (UCLG). For the past three years we have largely been negligent in the way that we have dealt with this Body. Our attendance has been sporadic and our input none-existent. Our reputation as a Country has been diminished because of this. In short, we have been negligent in making use of a body which has huge contacts and great influence.
You may feel that this is all rather irrelevant but at our Annual Conference last week the LGA passed a motion supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The reason that these are so amenable to local government action is because UCLG spent three years negotiating with the UN to make them usable and practical.
So when the LGA chooses its delegates to the Executive Bureau, the Finance Committee and the World Council they need to choose people who will be committed to making internationalism work and then the LGA needs to get behind them and use UCLG as a platform to enable UK councils to develop strong trade, commercial, educational and cultural links.
Let’s be clear, whatever the result of BREXIT this Country has been diminished by the process and needs friends and local government can be a major route to finding and maintaining those vital friendships.
So, where does this leave councils like Liverpool? I have no objection to people from Liverpool travelling abroad to promote our City. I ask three things. Firstly, why are they going and does it accord to an agreed strategy? Secondly, what are they doing when they are there? Thirdly what are the results of them going?
When I ask for results, I don’t mean have they signed three contacts immediately because that would be naive. But how many people did they meet? What industries? What follow up? At one stage I am sure that I saw an agreement that in future we would get before and after reports so that we can all judge the value of the visit. I have yet to see one.
The other question to ask in Liverpool is why does Liverpool Council send people when we have a City Region Mayor whose responsibility it is to promote inward investment to the whole of the City Region? When I saw pictures of the annual MIPIM event in the Liverpool Echo I saw lots of pictures of Mayor Rotheram and Mayor Anderson talking to loads of people from Liverpool!
It must make sense to do things at a City Region level because the City Region has a much more diverse offer than the City. Each of our 6 districts have their own opportunities for different types of inward investment in terms of land availability, location and background. It must be more cost effective for the City Region to cover the opportunities for all of us than each individual council doing things separately.
Liverpool has a global brand which it is failing to exploit for industrial, commercial, educational and cultural activity. We have yet to have a strategy for making the most of that brand. I hope that this will be debated fully when, next year, we have elections for both a City Region Mayor and the City Mayor.
PS. None of my foreign trips except one to the Isle of Man has been paid for by taxpayers of Liverpool Council!!