Friday, May 11, 2012


Elected Mayors: the Lowdown

This post is a guest one from Imogen Gray, a person with eclectic interests who I have invited to share her thoughts on what, sadly, seems to be a idea of only limited interest - Elected Mayors.

Mayors Need Money to Be Meaningful

With the London Mayoral poll, and a number of referenda to determine if elected mayors are desireable elsewhere having taken place, the issue of directly elected mayors has once again become a topic for discussion. Some countries, such as the US have a long history of directly electing Mayors. Most of their major cities, as well as and many smaller municipalities, have chosen this method of separating the executive from the legislative functions, in a reflection of America’s state and federal structures. Like the President or the Governor of a sate, the Mayor in these instances combines a political role with a ceremonial one, and many such as Mayors Bloomberg, Giuliani and Koch of New York, and both Daley senior and junior in Chicago, have had wide name recognition, with both a national and international profile.


Political ideas do not have to rely on a worldwide parcel service to find their way to other parts of the globe. Politicians in all countries are always looking at what’s happening elsewhere, and what ideas they think they can borrow and make work within their own system. Traditionally in Europe the model has been to have mayors drawn from the council members rather than directly elected, and although in countries such as France and Italy the mayor has also held both political and ceremonial responsibilities, in many parts of the UK the mayor has become a purely titular figure, with administrative matters in the hands of a separate leader of the council. However, over the past thirty years things in Europe have slowly begun to change.

It was not until 1977 that Paris re-established the office of mayor, having done without one for more than a hundred years, and in Rome direct election only began in 1993. In Germany, the number of elected mayors has grown a pace since re-unification, and recent legislative changes mean that all Italian mayors are now directly elected.

Change in Britain

The UK has perhaps been slower than many to embrace the concept. In 1991, Michael Heseltine, the then Environment Minister put forward the idea of directly elected mayors as a means of giving a strong voice and strong leadership to Britain’s cities, but many other Conservative MP’s opposed the idea, fearing that it would see a re-emergence of the political strife that had existed in the eighties between the Thatcher Government and powerful figures such as Ken Livingstone at the former GLC, Derek Hatton in Liverpool, and David Blunkett in Sheffield.

It was left to the Blair Government to take the first steps with the Greater London Authority Act of 1999, which once again gave London a city wide Assembly, but also provided for an Directly elected mayor. Ken Livingstone became the first Mayor of London in the following year, which also saw the Local Government Act made provision for other Local Authorities to have referenda on the issue. Although some high profile mayors were elected, such as Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough, they were few in number. Of the thirty eight referenda up until Election Day in May 2010, only thirteen favoured a change to a Mayoral structure. The Coalition Government’s Localism Act in 2011 gave fresh impetus to the idea, with referenda in ten new cities on the issue taking place alongside local elections in May. Only Bristol voted in favour, although some cities, with Liverpool amongst them, had already agreed to the change without a referendum taking place.

Leaders or Cheerleaders?

David Cameron has given strong support to the idea, arguing that it would give greater accountability to local government, and that directly elected mayors would be in a better position to “galvanise action” on matters important to their communities. However, it is perhaps this attitude that provides the greatest obstacle to the success of Mayoral systems. Despite apparent enthusiasm, especially in opposition, from Cameron and many other senior politicians for Britain’s cities to have high profile cheerleaders, that it seems is all they want mayors to be, as in power they have generally have proven reluctant to give them meaningful power.

In 2011, the cities minister Greg Clark said that, “Our greatest cities can benefit from strong, visible leadership and international standing that a mayor, elected with a clear mandate, can bring. Around the world, including in London, a mayor has become a vital part in ensuring that a great city has a strong voice and can attract investment from home and aboard”, and that, “Britain's success depends on the success of our great cities and I am convinced that an elected mayor, taking powers previously confined to ministers, can help realise their potential.” However, in the government’s consultation document on the issue of mayoral powers, there was no commitment to giving the newly elected mayors any specific powers, arguing that, “Whilst we are clear about the potential of mayors to drive a city's economic growth and prosperity we believe that each of the cities should consider the specific powers that should be exercised by individual city mayors. We are thus proposing to look to the cities themselves to come forward with their own proposals. Where a mayor is, or in the case of Leicester has been, elected we expect that mayor to put to us any proposals he or she has for decentralising services and powers to that city mayor.” In this way, this government, much like its predecessor, is probably hoping to limit the powers it gives away, by granting only a nominal input to elected mayors across a range of policy issues such as health, transport, planning and others, whilst retaining real decision making power in their own hands.

Where the Real Power Lies

The one thing that would make the Mayoral system truly effective is financial independence, and yet it is control of the purse strings that government has always been most reluctant to relinquish. However, even Boris Johnson, recently re-elected Conservative Mayor of London, has come to recognise how key this is to success, and has pointed to the fact that whilst world cities such as Tokyo and New York derive less than 10% of their income from central government, London relies on them for 95% of their spending. In an open letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne he has said that, "Fiscal devolution would create a stronger link between taxation and democratic representation, enable greater scrutiny, and would enable London to pay more of its own way in an era of financial constraint,", and no doubt many of the newly elected provincial mayors would say the same of their own cities. Acting together, maybe they will be able to strengthen their offices and become more akin to their counterparts across the pond.

It is blindingly obvious under current political considerations, that should any mayor start to act in the way in Joe Chamberlain did in the 1870's, there would be such an attack of the vapours on the part of Eric Pickles that he might explode. All the talk of the expanded role of these putative mayors is so much hot air. Central government will not return those powers it has taken from local government let alone contemplate an expansion of the powers exercised locally by democratically elected councilors and maybe even mayors.
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