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England struggles over the
concept of elected mayors

By Andrew Stevens, UK Editor

29 November 2006: English elected mayors are in the news again and for all the wrong reasons. Speculation over the contents of the much-delayed forthcoming local government white paper and whether or not it will call for more elected mayors is routinely replaced by yet another story of a council besieged by campaigners demanding a return to the old system and to ditch the mayor. For those living and working outside of British politics, the messy and inconsistent system is rightly a mystery and this City Mayors feature will explain why this is the case.

Update November 2007:
In October 2007 the UK government’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act was finally approved by Parliament and overhauled the system of governance in most English councils, seven years after the landmark Local Government Act, which introduced the elected mayor model for the first time. The new Act requires council leaders to be installed for four years, thus almost creating a Swedish-style indirectly elected mayor. More

To understand why elected mayors have not exactly been a success story in the British political environment, you have to strip away various layers of government and examine their role in the debacle. The Cabinet member responsible for their introduction in the first term of Tony Blair’s government, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, was no fan of the idea and was relegated to watching the Prime Minister’s advisers form the policy from Downing Street, with his junior Hilary Armstrong, a noted mayoral enthusiast, charged with implementing it. It was Prescott’s recent messy departure from his department, though remaining nominally in office as Deputy Prime Minister, that saw the white paper delayed until this autumn, to allow his departmental successor Ruth Kelly time to work up proposals herself.

Kelly, like Prescott, is a recent convert to the mayoral cause, but unlike some Blairites, not willing to push the policy come what may and taking a more pragmatic line on their introduction. The problem is that the government has been too pragmatic over their introduction since it was first elected, buckling to conservatism among Labour MPs and local government figures and preferring a ‘light touch’ approach to allowing local councils to adopt the system, which explains why only 12 councils of the 35 to hold referendums on them have opted to have one. Furthermore, a combination of a lack of political will on the part of government and civil service incompetence has rendered the policy ill-thought out and locally unmanageable, which has led to a sense of some councils being ungovernable under the system and demands for its abolition, hardly the dynamism promised years ago.

Though indelibly associated with New Labour modernisation of local government, the idea was first floated by the Conservative former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine following his stint at the Department of the Environment under John Major’s government but which got nowhere because of Tory opposition to such modern thinking. In fact, to some extent, Labour entered office in 1997 equipped only with commitments to elected mayors, a new strategic body for London, ‘Best Value’ (as a successor to ideologically-driven local outsourcing) and a new power to promote “economic, social and environmental wellbeing” for local councils. Elected mayors entered the policy debate as part of the independent Commission for Local Democracy’s work during Labour’s final days in opposition and the idea certainly chimed with New Labour’s Yankophilia and the Blairite prescription of ‘leadership’ as a panacea for public sector failure. The idea also caught the imagination of those yearning for a more dynamic system of local democracy than the then system permitted, it having suffered the ‘dented shield’ under Thatcherism and having reform foisted upon it once a generation since 1835.

The policy got its first outing in London, where the democratic deficit left by the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC) enabled Labour to have a convenient pilot for this American-influenced new system. In 1998, the government used the local elections in the capital to stage a referendum on its proposals for a new city-wide mayor and 25 member assembly as a new strategic form of governance for the Greater London region. This also doubled-up as effectively the first English region to trial regional government. In the referendum, 72 per cent of voters in the capital assented to the government’s proposals, with the Conservatives in favour of the mayor but opposed to the assembly and the Liberal Democrats vice versa.

One Labour figure opposed to the concept was Ken Livingstone, who hankered for the return of the GLC, preferably at County Hall (Greater London’s former city hall, which had since been sold off to make way for a hotel and art gallery) and neither the new Greater London Authority (GLA) nor subsequent mayoral experiments found much favour with Labour backbenchers. Having piloted through the new GLA, with an Act second only in length to the 1935 Government of India Act, the government sought to bring about elected mayors outside of the capital, citing major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool as the next candidates. In all eventuality, London ended up with a mayor not of the Prime Minister’s liking (Ken Livingstone, elected as an independent) and both the candidate selection processes and subsequent elections demonstrated how the new system re-wrote the rules to an extent which made most activists jittery.

Labour’s desire to see more cities try the mayoral model found legislative form in the Local Government Act 2000, which also introduced the Standards Board for England and local frameworks as a means by which to reassure the public it was serious about promoting probity in local democracy. The effect of the policy was not to see mayors in Birmingham and Manchester but Hartlepool and Mansfield. The Act was certainly monumental in scope, a landmark up there with the 1972 and 1835 Acts. Its effect on local government culture was considerable, moving away from the antiquated committee system that had been in place since 1835 and instead relying on a more leadership-based concept of governance, with scrutiny by backbench councillors to further quality decision-making. However, many councillors refused to take their scrutiny role seriously, arguing that it meant a demotion from their previous role in committee making policy rather than just scrutinising it after the event.

Following the Act and the stipulated requirements to consult the community on the form of governance, the majority of councils (314) opted for the leader and cabinet model as that which most closely resembled the conventional leader and committee system pre-2000. The alternative arrangements model was only available to those (largely rural) district councils with 85,000 or less residents (59) or to a council which held a referendum on having an elected mayor and chose this model as their fall-back position, of which only Brighton and Hove City Council has done. The mayor and council manager model was only adopted in one council (Stoke on Trent City) and only proposed in two referendums (the other being Fenland District Council in 2005) and has not caught the popular imagination on account of it being so alien to local government traditions, to the point its abolition has been mooted.

When the Labour government legislated to have elected mayors in English local government, it was the great but declining cities of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester it envisaged as a emerging as regional civic citadels under strong mayors, not the lesser towns like Hartlepool and Watford. The policy effectively galvanised the forces of conservatism in all political parties and levels of government. While many councillors opposed the policy on the grounds that it was alien to British traditions of representative democracy, the truth remained that as many councillors simply did not have the requisite skills to persuade local voters to elect them mayor then they were not prepared to allow the system to be introduced.

For its part, the civil servants at the three separate ministries charged with implementing the policy (the department changed name three times under John Prescott owing to cabinet reshuffles) constantly obsessed with introducing legal impediments, bizarre electoral mechanisms and variances to dilute support (such as the unwanted council manager option that only one council has opted to have and subsequently badly wants rid of). It was not British government’s finest hour. However, to concentrate on the bad and give airtime to the policy’s detractors is to ignore the work and commitment of the elected mayors themselves.

In some areas, it is viewed that they would be better off without an elected mayor. The Stoke on Trent example is not indicative of them all – the Mayor and Council Manager model was always doomed to failure by dint of being politically unworkable in a majoritarian political culture and the ruling Labour Group there has been rocked by instability and discipline issues, something of a common theme in most councils that opted to have a mayor!

In Lewisham, the loss of the council (but not the mayor) from Labour control in 2006, following three decades of strong Labour rule, saw some opportunism on the part of the now dominant opposition parties who are campaigning to abolish the post of mayor, in spite of his re-election this May. However, it has to be said that the mayor’s relaxed style of governing is hardly indicative of the potential that could be realised under a more dynamic mayor.

Similarly, parties in Hartlepool are agitating to dispense with the Independent mayor, whose novice-like status may endear him to voters but not the council. In Doncaster, lingering doubts over probity under Labour rule have led to a spate of independents elected to the council and demands to revert back to the old system. Again, the policy can be ridiculed on account of the backwater towns that have adopted it – Hartlepool, Watford, Doncaster, Lewisham, Mansfield etc. rather than the better-known or more illustrious cities and towns envisaged early on. Even in the councils which have steered clear of trouble (Mansfield, Bedford, North Tyneside), the lack of national profile for their elected mayors has rendered the policy a dud in the eyes of some.

Yet in Middlesbrough, few can deny the profile of its elected mayor Ray Mallon and the work undertaken since elected against the odds to lower the town’s unfortunate high crime rate.

In the face of further Treasury meddling, the Department for Communities and Local Government is already rumoured to have watered down the white paper to nothing more than a bland mission statement. Claiming a desire to avoid imposing structures from the centre, Ruth Kelly has indicated a preference for new 'City Development Corporations' in order to further the city regions agenda. In other words, unelected quangos grafted on top of locally elected institutions. This will keep anti-mayor city leaders sweet for the time being but do little to address either the governance gap or economic competitiveness. Furthermore, Communities Secretary Kelly has also said that such bodies should not follow a one size fits all pattern and be locally designed. Only recently one such partnership sprung up in England's second city Birmingham – the confusingly-titled Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country City Region. This should be heeded as a warning of how parochial concerns can obscure actual delivery and relevance in designing such structures and act as grist to the centralist's mill.

The city region concept has barely progressed from the policy community of think tanks and academia, with mounting scepticism from the civil service likely water any commitments down further still. And why should it? Government should start by acknowledging that some places are more important than others and act accordingly by devolving real power down to cities, starting with lifting capping so the England's biggest cities can set their own taxes free from Whitehall interference. Labour ministers and their Conservative counterparts holidaying in Europe may admire the strong French commune or the Spanish municipality and its mayoral character, yet they shy away from introducing here a system that works well on our doorstep. For those afraid to countenance direct election or 'alien' systems, this route would be painless and effective, if the psychological resistance to elections by party lists and eroding the monarchical nature of the English civic mayoral tradition was overcome, leading to strong civic leadership without reference to 'American' unfamiliarity. Once this process has begun, Britain needs to reconsider what being a city actually means, rather than allowing city status to be decided by the Queen in a post-feudal lottery that sees the parish of Ripon considered a city and urban centre Middlesbrough not. In short, a campaign for real cities should start here.

Like so many laudable policies designed to modernise and introduce more dynamism into a flagging institution, political backwater and in some unfortunate cases, laughing stock, elected mayors have simply brought out the worst in it. However, the blame here lies as much with central government as with its counterparts in the 12 towns and cities that were bold enough to go ahead with it. In years hence, the policy of elected mayors will probably come to be viewed as an episode not of local government failure but the failure of the whole British political system to introduce or innovate. For that reason alone, the policy should be given another chance rather than dispensed with.

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