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UK should make elected mayors
focus of local government reform

By Chris Leslie and Guy Lodge*

29 June 2008: Wrenching power from central control is proving difficult. Despite a massive improvement in the quality and performance of English local government over the past decade, cross-party political goodwill for devolution, and managerial consensus that centralism cannot cope with the detailed challenges of frontline service delivery, there remains a disinclination to delegate power. Local councils and councilors remain stubbornly unfashionable among the national political classes, and there is a wariness and lack of trust acting as a roadblock to decentralisation.

At root, this cultural reluctance is laden with half-baked excuses, chief of which is the notion that accountability and leadership within local government is inherently sub-standard. This is an important prejudice that needs not only dispelling, but conquering.

There has never been a more critical time than now for local government to devise strong leadership mechanisms coupled with the clearest possible accountability fit for the modern media age. We argue that strong leadership is a prerequisite for further devolution; that winning the argument with Whitehall requires an army of senior figures from towns and cities across England able to use their community mandate to demand a new wave of delegated powers, especially over policing, transport and health commissioning.

Yet the directly elected mayoralty has been slow to take off, sitting councillors have been skeptical, interpreting the change in leadership model as a consolidation of executive power rather than a route to greater localism. We argue that the time has come for the elected mayoral model to become a spearhead for the devolution of power, where directly mandated leadership should unlock a new suite of influence on behalf of local people.

Local democratic autonomy shouldn’t just be earned by high managerial performance, it should be quickened where elected mayors are in place to give the clarity of leadership and accountability able to rebut those last remaining reasons not to devolve.

The case of London is instructive here. Since its inception the London mayor has gained important new competencies over planning and housing, in part because ministers have been more willing to devolve powers when there are clear lines of accountability in place. Ministers need to be assured that once they let go, the buck will stop with local leaders – and not get passed back to them in Whitehall.

By delivering high profile, well-known and visibly accountable leaders, mayors provide this much needed reassurance. A survey conducted in Newham, east London, for example, revealed that 67 per cent of residents could identify Sir Robin Wales as their mayor. With a mayor the public knows who is in charge and where the buck stops. In this respect mayors have the potential to make local government more accountable, and can therefore contribute significantly to the introduction of greater local autonomy.

The visibility of an elected mayor makes each decision subject to heightened scrutiny, especially by the media and public. Where better, then, to test out the transfer of powers from unelected agencies and into the hands of clearly accountable executive leaders? Police and local health commissioning powers could be transferred as a preference to elected mayors, providing a safeguard that decisions will not be lost in backroom committees but instead taken upfront and in the full glare of service user opinion.

England’s limited experience of directly elected mayors has already demonstrated their potential. Though few in number, all of our mayors have been shown to make a difference in their localities. They have proved capable leaders, and in places like Hackney, east London have overseen a complete turnaround in the fortunes of the Council. Mayors have also pushed through some of the most innovative policies of the last decade, most obviously the congestion charge in London, but also in economic regeneration, focusing on local priorities like crime and skills, and concentrating minds on relentless campaigns for inward investment.

While it is true that direct election provides an opportunity to throw up maverick candidates few mayoral elections have in fact produced policy-light contests. The recent London election saw two larger-than-life personalities fight it out but no one would suggest that style trumped substance. Voters in the capital were treated to both: with the offer of distinct policy agendas by two political celebrities. This is one of the reasons why the turnout shot up. Moreover, it is mistaken to assume that if an election focuses to some degree on an individual’s “character” it is somehow flawed or undemocratic in content. Questions of personality and character matter a great deal to the electorate – they are intimately interwoven with issues about trust and authenticity, and alongside the policies of candidates, help determine how the electorate vote.

Equally the charge that mayors concentrate too much power in one individual is exaggerated and, crucially, fails to take account of the changes being introduced to the status of council leaders since the Local Government Act 2007. Under these new arrangements council leaders are to be given virtually the same powers as mayors, for instance over appointment, and granted four-year terms. They won’t, however, be elected directly by the public but instead will emerge from within the council itself. In other words the government have created indirectly elected mayors. What is clear is that any attempt to strengthen the executive capacity – be it through mayors or other models – needs to be matched with corresponding reforms to the scrutiny role of the council so that there are sufficient checks and balances in play.

The public is increasingly hungry for stronger local leadership, and while the mayoral model might not fit everywhere, there is a growing case in English cities where new powers to bolster the ‘place-shaping’ concept are especially important. The New Local Government Network (NLGN) commissioned Ipsos MORI to interview over 1000 adults from across the country in mid May 2008, in order to test local perceptions of leadership. They discovered that 71 per cent of adults said they could not name their current local council leader, a sure sign that accountability is not as great as it could be. This problem is more acute with the younger generation, with only a fifth of under 34 year olds saying they were able to identify their council leader. When asked if they supported or opposed their council having a directly elected mayor, support outweighed opposition by 38 per cent to 29 per cent, with most support coming from younger people. Importantly, support for elected mayors grew stronger when asked about major cities in the UK (other than London); 40 per cent of people said they supported this model compared to just 16 per cent in opposition, with the remainder either ambivalent or unsure. Interestingly, Labour voters are keener on elected mayors in cities – 51 per cent of this group favouring a change.

With this positive degree of public assent, it is perhaps surprising that there are still only a dozen elected mayoral authorities. There is a willingness to see change, especially for larger cities. Creating strong figureheads capable of banging the table at a national level on behalf of their locality is surely one way to deliver new public facilities, services, investment and prosperity across a greater swathe of the country. In return for a willingness to reform, Ministers should offer the reins of power to those communities to take the step to opt for clear, mandated leadership. These incentives must be real and meaningful; they should take control out of the hands of civil servants and give their locally elected mayor a new say over previously anonymously dictated local services. If residents don’t like the direction the mayor takes, they have an opportunity to fire them on election day, or re-elect if they agree with where things are heading.

For the Brown premiership there are wider benefits to be gained from pushing a mayoral agenda. By presenting mayors as a decentralizing measure, Brown would finally have a substantive policy response to the English Question, which has arisen as a result of (asymmetric) devolution to Scotland and Wales. Mayors might not answer the West Lothian Question – a reference to the ability of Scottish MPs to vote on English matters – but by enabling England to be administered in a far less centralised fashion they would significantly improve the way England is governed, something which is likely to be of greater concern to the public.

Renewing local democracy should mean more than rearranging existing powers between councillors and mayors – it must involve reassigning power and influence closer to the people and away from Whitehall, and the elected mayoralty could be the key to this new offer. If the Government is bold it will make mayors a centerpiece of its forthcoming Empowerment White Paper, which at a stroke would make politics matter in places far removed from London. If local government is smart it should back them, since once in place mayors have the potential to unleash a further devolutionary momentum.

Chris Leslie is Director of the New Local Government Network and was formerly a minister for local government and the constitution in the government of Tony Blair.
Guy Lodge
is Head of the Democracy and Power team at the Institute for Public Policy Research, as well as a visiting research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University.