The case for elected mayors

Isn’t it about time people knew who was running their towns and cities?

If directly elected mayors achieve anything, it will surely be to make local government, and the people who run it, more visible, and therefore more answerable. It will catapult regional politics from something that takes place, away from the public gaze, in grand town hall buildings, with its elections, won on slim majorities in tiny constituencies with small turnouts, to something more tangible, recognisable, and acceptable.

It will help inject some much needed razzmatazz into local democracy. Mayors will no longer be ceremonial posts complete with gold chains and giant scissors, but ones with bite; someone who can project their city onto the world stage, and away from the parochial confines of their local area. In its desire to continue what Labour set in motion, the coalition government has outlined its plans for elected mayors in 11 cities in England, if approved in referendums over the course of the next couple of years.

There are several reasons for hoping that each and every city responds with a resounding yes. According to the Institute for Government (IFG), an independent think tank leading the way in championing the yes vote, the economic benefits are too obvious to ignore:

Time and again, history shows that it is cities with strong and effective civic leadership that are well placed to make the most of local economic assets and compete better in a global economy. And mayors create an opportunity to have exactly this type of strong and effective leadership.”

The IFG points to previous studies which have shown that economic growth in England’s cities has been ‘highly uneven,’ partly due to central government’s insistence in implementing ‘catch-all policies.’A mayoral model would offer cities the chance to ‘deliver more tailored policies that take account of their specific needs.’

Improving private sector performance would be one area to address. Creating a business friendly environment where cities focus on developing transport, planning and skills policies, is one of the key recommendations made in the IFG’s Big Shot or Long Shot, a report released earlier this year, evaluating the government’s Localism Bill.

Its director, Lord Adonis, argued, in a visit to Bristol, one of the cities due to vote next year, that an elected mayor would help sort out Bristol’s chronic transport problems. Loathing the city’s bus network is an issue guaranteed to unite Bristolians. Having spent several years living there, I can vouch (and concur) for their anger.

A visible mayor, with strong name-recognition, and a personality to match, is enticing. A poll conducted by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) found that after 12-18 months in areas that have already plumped for elected mayors, 57% of people could identify them, compared to only 25% who could identify their council leaders.

Those who value local democracy should be even more concerned by a survey carried out ahead of this year’s local elections which found that most people couldn’t name a single one of their councillors, and were deeply dissatisfied with the work he/she was doing, whoever he/she might be.

Contrary to what was alluded to on these pages, independent-minded mayors, free from the shackles and constraints of party politics, are something which should be embraced. And even being affiliated doesn’t necessarily result in blind party loyalty: Ken Livingstone being the obvious example, but also Michael Bloomberg in New York.

If elected mayors are able to re-energise local government, pique people’s interest, and most importantly, generate a greater (domestic and international) attraction to our cities, then they have to be a good thing.

My only concern, and a large one at that, is that the government’s plans are too timid, and shy away from granting powers that the London mayors have been afforded.

The Economist optimistically predicts that: “mayors will surely acquire more powers as people get used to them.” But, notes that: “…it will not be easy to persuade people to vote for a vague promise of civic reorganisation, without the powers to match.”

  1. The electorate may be more likely to know the name of a directly-elected mayor than a council leader but there the benefit stops:

    Why should the public be any more likely to know which services they run? Or what their policies are?

    What, exactly, is the benefit of “razzmatazz”? Isn’t political accountability more important, and is that what you’ll get from personality contests?

    Councillors will still be “slim majorities in tiny constituencies with small turnouts” but they will have less power to hold the executive
    mayor to account.

    As I said here:

    To invest in a single politician the power to make policy across a range of issues, to effectively control the budget unless there is a large majority against it, to appoint a host of other politicians to powerful posts on what may well be, for those individuals and those who elect them, very large salaries: that is an unacceptable concentration of power.”

  2. Elected Mayors are a cop out. In current circumstances of an essentially neo-liberal consensus Elected Mayors are the latest step in minimising democratic control over Local Authorities already losing powers to special interests and commercial entities.

  3. “it is cities with strong and effective civic leadership that are well placed to make the most of local economic assets and compete better in a global economy. And mayors create an opportunity to have exactly this type of strong and effective leadership.”

    Now tell me that Leaders like Sir Richard Leese in Manchester have failed to give “strong & effective leadership”. It’s nonsense. Leadership is about people, not titles.

  4. @Gary: I don’t think Ken ever toed the New Labour party line. He was refreshingly dissenting. Bloomberg is nowhere near as extreme as many Republicans.

    @John: There are of course many examples of fine leadership in our councils, but not nearly enough. Many cities are crying out for them. Bristol a good example.

    @Jon and @Paul: Accountability would still come from the council executive, as well as the voters.

    In fact, because mayors are/will be so high profile, it’ll be even harder to shy away from their decisions. They’ll never be out of the public eye.

    A big figure, willing to speak for his/her city, and strike a chord with the public is essential. Running a large city will inevitably require someone with a personality to match.

    The public will have an idea where the buck stops, and the constant local (even national) media attention will mean policies will be far more scrutinised and known.

  5. If anyone wishes to investigate the nonsense of ‘independent minded’ Elected Mayors, then look no further than Stoke-on-Trent.
    We are British experts of such people and are proud to offer our services for their total demise.

    In the wider wastelands of Great Britain, away from BIG Cities, tiny Mayors act BIG and talk BIG and shut down public services as unwanted pests not requiring public finances.
    There is nothing small about a tiny Mayor in a tinpot Town or City wanting any headline promoting a Alice in Wonderland prospectus held withing their genius soul from birth.

    These people are puppets of Regional Directors bypassing all natural forms of responsible democratic local Government in favour of eradicating a pestilence within to secure some screwball adventure designed to offset public service in favour of privatising anything delivered by a normal very high standard of excellence.
    Privatisation is cheap, regardless of substandard delivery and execution and public servce delivery is costly even though impossible to better.

    A Labour Elected Mayor is a disease without a cure even though a miracle cure was found in Stoke-on-Trent, not once, but twice.

    We belived that the models on offer are punitive and politically wrong and should be extinguished by a simple vote.

    We beieved that the new found and grotesque form of local governement may only be due to an Independent Mayor laying waste to a ‘Labour strong-hold’ and corrected it with a ‘Labour landslide’.
    We were wrong on that one also.

    A total eradication of the entire system was the only cure for a system who’s main supporters underwent internal scrutiny by HM Police (ongoing).

    Stoke-on-Trent is now Governed by a ‘Leader and Cabinet system’ and a Government (too scared?) not yet willing to offer us an alternative vote (as they promised in their Manifestos) for a ‘Enhanced Committee System’.

    You wish to bypass democratic local Government reasoning by elected Councillors simply because you can’t win arguments based on the power of persuasion.