Twice-relected Hartlepool Mayor Stuart Drummond has performed well above expectations

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England’s elected mayors
have performed rather well

By Andrew Stevens, UK Editor

21 January 2010: The debate surrounding the introduction of elected mayors in UK local government is one which has polarised both local government itself and the academic and policy communities the most among all others. Fewer topics elicit such vexatious argument and yet evidence-based debate is thin on the ground. What is needed is less fixation on constitutional issues and more on the difference mayors are actually making in their communities. Here we present our findings based on performance management ratings.

| Introduction | Mayors in context | Literature | Mayors 2002-2010 | Assessment | Table | Conclusion |

The UK government has in its 1998, 2001, 2006 and 2008 local government white papers affirmed its view that elected mayors represent the best form of council leadership, yet has been largely unwilling to promote the idea beyond these documents, save for the odd legislative amendment here and there.

Think tanks issue an array of exasperated reports, usually based on opinion poll data, calling on reluctant ministers to act more decisively and the public, for their part, mostly show indifference – as evidenced in the low response rates to the recent consultations on introducing more elected mayors and unsurprising given the imperceptible effect local governance theory has on people’s day to day lives. Yet for all the platitudes aired, there is little to show for any kind of actual deep assessment of the difference elected mayors might have made locally.

The problem here lies in the fact that for England’s 353 local councils there are 353 different sets of political, economic and historical circumstances. Watford, some 30 kilometres north of London, with its elected mayor, cannot simply be contrasted to its near neighbour Luton and its council leader as the variables do not sit together for handy analysis. As outlined here, England has its own local government performance management regime (the Comprehensive Performance Assessment) with which to compare local councils on a like-for-like basis and it is against this with which we will examine what improvement, if any, mayors have made to their areas.

Mayors in context
Elected mayors were first introduced in England in May 2002, following the first set of referendums held in 2001 which approved their creation. There are no elected mayors in Scotland and while the power exists to create the post in Wales no local councils have done so. Elected mayors are directly elected by local people in an election, while the more common council leader is indirectly elected from among the local council.

Reviewing the literature
A number of evaluations of English elected mayors’ performance have been published since the first posts were elected to in 2002, though most of these have either been polemical (elected mayors are a ‘good thing’) or driven by polling data (most people ‘like’ elected mayors or ‘recognise’ them over council leaders).

The key drivers of the debate in England have been the New Local Government Network (NLGN), which was founded in 1996 to further the debate around modernisation of local democracy under the new Labour government. NLGN was instrumental in funding the campaigns during referendums for the introduction of elected mayors, often against considerable opposition from local political parties and trade unions (for instance the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government and the then AEEU union’s ‘Mayors are Bad’ campaigns). It has since 2002 hosted a Mayoral Forum for the sitting elected mayors to convene to share best practice. More recently, intellectual support has also come from the Labour-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) and the Progress organisation associated with New Labour. For their part, the current opposition Conservative Party has embraced the policy wholesale in its local government policies, while the Liberal Democrats remain largely opposed to it in their own.

However, elected mayors were introduced under the Local Government Act 2000, which did more to reform the 150 year old committee system by replacing most councils’ constitutional arrangements with conventional indirectly-elected council leaders and cabinets. Elected mayors were simply an option under the new system and one which had to be approved by the local population in a referendum at that (since changed to a simple vote of council in 2007).

Unsurprisingly, most councils opted to remain with the closest to what they knew and only 37 local councils (of a total 353) held referendums on their introduction, with most voting against (25 against to 12 passed). An academic study on behalf of the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (now Department for Communities and Local Government) undertook an evaluation of the new council constitutions in 2002-2004 as Evaluating Local Governance, drawing on professors from a number of universities. As part of this, Professor Gerry Stoker (a leading member of the pro-mayoral New Local Government Network) published his How Are Mayors Measuring Up? in July 2004. Stoker’s study largely assessed the circumstances behind the creation of each mayoralty, the election results and the emerging ‘leadership style’ of each mayor, not least as insufficient time had passed since their creation for any kind of rounded assessment to be given on their performance in office.

A further academic study sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation was published in July 2005 with Local political leadership in England and Wales (Steve Leach et al.), which took a more contrarian view of the belief that strong leadership can act as a panacea for faltering performance by local councils or that collective leadership can hinder performance. Colin Copus’ book Leading the localities: Executive mayors in English local governance (2006) assesses the impact elected mayors have had on local government so far and contrasts their powers with those of other countries’ mayors, though again the period under consideration was somewhat limited to the first term of most mayors.

Naturally, most local government academic journals have hosted a number of articles appraising the performance of mayors in office. A good example of this is John Fenwick and Howard Elcock’s ‘The Elected Mayor and Local Leadership’, from the January 2005 edition of Public Money and Management.

As noted, the intellectual debate has largely taken place elsewhere, in the confines of the world of think tanks, a point possibly painfully acknowledged in the title of the New Local Government Network’s 2002 essay collection on the potential difference the new mayors could make, Beyond SW1. A later analysis by one of its editors, Mayors Mid-term (2004), by Anna Randle sought to provide a scorecard for the first batch of mayors to be elected but mainly concentrated on the pros and cons of the mayoral system and its public reception. Mayors making a difference (2006), edited by Kiran Dhillon, collected together the views of sitting elected mayors on how they have acted in office.

While hardly objective, some useful insights are obtained, such as Watford’s Dorothy Thornhill claiming her previous opposition to the idea of elected mayors vaporised overnight once she became one, whereas Hartlepool’s Stuart Drummond felt his town had gone “from strength to strength” since the mayoral system had been introduced. More robustly perhaps, Newham’s Robin Wales was at least able to claim a 10 per cent reduction in crime under his watch, thanks to his council’s emphasis on tackling anti-social behaviour, while Lewisham’s ‘listening’ mayor Steve Bullock pointed to the increased visibility of the council leadership in residents’ surveys and a more partnership-led approach to service improvement.

Overall, Dhillon found that mayors had led to more visibility, accountability and engagement in their localities, with the potential for a more dynamic approach to driving economic development locally. Its most recent offering, Directly Elected, Direct Results: Reflections on the mayoral model in the UK (2008), similarly collects a range of pro-mayoral views from sitting mayors to arrive at broadly the same conclusion, backed up by new polling data to affirm the view that the public prefer elected mayors over council leaders (38% to 29%).

The ippr have, as mentioned, also thrown their weight behind the mayoral policy in recent years, with an article for the March 2008 edition of its ppr journal, ‘Mayors rule’, (Michael Kenny and Guy Lodge) arguing of a demonstrable link between the introduction of elected mayors and tangible local improvements:

“Evidence from the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) suggests that mayors have proved to be highly capable executive leaders. The latest CPA report praises North Tyneside, finding it to be one of the most improved councils in the country (Audit Commission 2008). Since the introduction of an elected mayor, Hackney has demonstrated sustained and continuous improvement, moving from its status as a 1-star authority in 2005 to a 3-star one in 2007, while also being considered to be improving strongly – the top category in the ‘direction of travel’ assessment…

Even Hartlepool’s mayor, Stuart Drummond, who achieved celebrity status for standing for election dressed as a monkey, has confounded skeptics. His election was widely considered as emblematic of how this system could open local government to mavericks or joke candidates… He has coordinated policies that have led to a 20 per cent fall in crime, and overseen demonstrable improvements in education and social service provision (Randle 2004). In its last CPA review, Hartlepool was judged to be one of the top-performing authorities in the country, achieving a 4-star (‘excellent’) rating. Drummond was subsequently re-elected with a massively increased majority. He was even a finalist for the title of ‘world mayor’ for 2005.”

Mayors in office 2002-2010
In a policy context, it is widely acknowledged that the elected mayoral policy had a difficult birth, from the legislative process to its scattered implementation and wavering levels of government support since. However, it is now possible to at least ascertain the worth of individual mayoralties on their local area. For instance, the London Borough of Hackney suffered a turbulent decade of poor governance and political infighting throughout the 1990s, leading to the possibility of national government suspending the council in 2001, which it only narrowly avoided. The introduction of the mayoral system in 2002 is widely credited with stabilising a council long considered a basketcase, rising from the worst-rated local authority in the country to one of the strongest improving.

The Kenny and Lodge ippr article positively suggests that Watford’s Dorothy Thornhill was able to lever in extra resources to build a new hospital, while as supported by other articles, Lewisham’s Sir Steve Bullock has used the mayoralty to make the council leadership more visible and at the helm of local public service partnerships. Yet this enthusiasm clearly wasn’t universal, as Lewisham was one of two local councils subject to a vociferous local campaign to abolish the post of elected mayor, the other being Doncaster where criticism over council negligence in child safety saw the mayor forced to stand down at the next election. As both advocates of elected mayors and elected mayors themselves are fond of saying, the buck stops with the mayor and the accountability argument at least is therefore largely proven.

The Comprehensive Performance Assessment
The Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) was introduced in England in 2002 in order to compare the performance of individual local councils against others. The system was introduced to the 150 county and single-tier (unitary councils, metropolitan districts and London boroughs) in 2002 and extended to the 238 district councils in 2003. Carried out by the Audit Commission, the central government-appointed body responsible for inspecting local government in England, the assessment process gathered together its own inspection data and that of other government inspectorates, as well as its own auditors’ views, to produce a single corporate performance rating for each local council.

CPA was placed on a statutory footing in the Local Government Act 2003, which gave the Audit Commission a legal duty to “from time to time produce a report on its findings in relation to the performance of English local authorities in exercising their functions.” This followed legal actions by a number of local authorities subject to several low scores (London Borough of Ealing and Torbay Council), who challenged the legality of their CPA assessments, though their complaints were not upheld.

Councils were initially scored as being ‘poor’, ‘weak’, ‘fair’, ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ on the basis of their overall assessment scores. However, this scoring system was replaced in 2005 with a new ‘star rating’-style system ranging from 0 stars to 4 stars, therefore differing from the former system as in 0 stars/poor and 4 stars/excellent. The new assessments also included a ‘direction of travel’ assessment to annually assess the progress a local council was making in its improvement, ranging from ‘not improving adequately or not improving’ for the worst to ‘improving strongly’ for the best. It should also be noted that the new system was known as CPA – the harder test, to reflect the new methodology for assessment. CPA for district councils was carried out over 2003 and 2004 with only one later adjustment in 2006 to ratings on the basis of a simple corporate assessment of improvement and performance (on the former categorisation rather than the new star system).

After a seven-year period of inspection and scoring, with final scores for 2008 issued in 2009, CPA was replaced by the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) later in the year. The new system unites the assessments of six different inspectorates, led by the Audit Commission, of local authority performance, including how local government works with other bodies in each locality (eg. fire, police, health, job centres and the third sector) through centrally-negotiated local area agreements and national indicators. It also includes consideration of local people’s views, through the Place Survey, as well as auditor’s findings.

England’s mayors under CPA
The following is presented as the findings of the government’s Audit Commission under the CPA process, mapping the direction of travel of each mayoral authority based on the initial and final CPA scores and the time period in which the mayoralty was created (following a referendum) and if mayors were re-elected or subject to change.

First election
2002 CPA score
2008 CPA score
Improvement rating
Watford May 2002 weak (a) good (b) n/a Yes
Doncaster May 2002 fair 1 star not improving adequately No (1)
Hartlepool May 2002 excellent 4 star improving strongly Yes
Lewisham May 2002 good 4 star improving well Yes
Middlesbrough May 2002 good 4 star improving strongly Yes
Newham May 2002 fair 3 star improving adequately Yes
North Tyneside May 2002 poor 3 star improving well No (2)
Bedford October 2002 good (c) Excellent (b) n/a Yes (3)
Hackney October 2002 poor 3 star improving strongly Yes
Mansfield October 2002 weak (a) good (b) n/a Yes
Torbay October 2005 poor 2 star improving well n/a
1) mayor re-elected 2005 but stood down at next election (2009)
2) first mayor resigned in office (2003), successor defeated at next election (2005) but returned at next election (2009)
3) mayor re-elected (2007) but died in office (2009)
a) CPA was first introduced to district councils in 2003
b) the categorisation for districts was retained (rather than star system)
c) Bedford was a district council until April 2009 (now unitary)
NB: The Mayor of London not included as Greater London is a regional authority which does not directly provide services and is not subject to CPA/CAA

The assessments each tell their own story. The immediate winners can be seen as those authorities, which steadily improved and saw the re-election of their mayor, with Hartlepool’s Stuart Drummond showing consistent improvement and a strong rating for the authority throughout the seven years, with two successive re-election victories.

Neighbouring Middlesbrough under Ray Mallon is also regarded as a strongly performing authority, as shown by its results. Elsewhere in the North East region, North Tyneside has shown solid progress with its improvement on a ‘poor’ rating in 2002 to 3 stars in 2008.

Of the three London boroughs, Hackney has also shown the most remarkable transformation, moving from the lower reaches of the ‘poor’ authorities ranked in 2002, to its current ‘improving strongly’ 3 stars. The other two London Boroughs, Newham’s Sir Robin Wales and Lewisham’s Sir Steve Bullock, have both made modest gains in the score tables.

The two districts in the table, Mansfield’s Tony Egginton and Watford’s Dorothy Thornhill, show decent improvement by both moving up two categories. Having contested the whole process in 2002, Torbay under Nick Bye can now at least report some progress in its improvement, with a 2 star rating in 2008.

A more sour note for the mayoral system’s worth is shown by the experience of Doncaster, whose residents turned to the system in the hope of a new start for the troubled town but merely replaced widespread corruption with wholesale under-performance and negligence.

Not included is Stoke on Trent, which was England’s only example of the Mayor and Council Manager system, introduced in May 2002 but abolished in May 2009 and replaced by the more common indirectly elected council leader. From its ‘fair’ rating in 2002, the council then secured a ‘good’ rating in 2004, regressing to just 1 star in 2006 and then improving dramatically to 3 stars in 2007, though ending on 2 stars in 2008. The erratic performance could be seen as a reflection of the governance problems faced by the council, which saw a central government appointed commission into its affairs state that it was “a city with a damaged political system”.

Depending on your preference or affiliation, elected mayors are, like reform of local finance, destined to remain either a desirable panacea for declining rates of participation and underperformance by local councils, or an aspirin in search of a headache. What has been shown is that mayors, like council leaders possibly, have mostly been capable of putting their local authority on an improvement journey, which in some cases has shown dramatic turnarounds (Hackney, North Tyneside) and in other cases simply steady progress (Lewisham). Whereas some mayors have provided stability after considerable chaos (Hackney) or underperformance (Torbay), others have simply got on with the job and been recognised for it (Hartlepool, Middlesbrough). And where they haven’t, the electorate have had their say (Doncaster, Stoke on Trent). Either way, they’ve got people talking about local government, which remains in most people’s eyes a municipal theme park of mayors’ chains of office, dull committee meetings behind closed doors and possibly even irrelevance.