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In praise of mayors

Next week, the Localism Bill gets its second reading in the House of Commons. In all the furore about spending cuts, relatively little attention has been paid to this bill’s radical proposals for creating directly elected mayors in 12 big cities in England.

To drum up interest, Andrew Adonis has embarked on a tour of the cities that will decide in referenda in 2012 whether to have elected mayors. He is a longstanding supporter of the concept and was one of the few voices in the last Labour government to argue for a radical expansion of powerful, directly elected mayors to the big cities outside London.

After its early reforms, Labour largely gave up on promoting city mayors. Labour leaders in local government were hostile, while democratic reformers in the Cabinet, with a few honourable exceptions like Andrew, were sceptical or indifferent. Few saw city mayors as any part of the answer to the English democratic deficit. Gordon Brown thought it was a political dead-end to push something that Labour’s big players in local government wouldn’t support. And although the Labour manifesto contained some warm words about city-regional mayors, Ed Miliband’s Doncaster experience hardly endeared him to the concept of a directly elected mayoralty.

So Labour left a legacy amounting to one high-profile mayor in London and a scattering of others in boroughs, towns and cities across England, with none in the major conurbations. (There are still no directly elected mayors in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.)

ippr, along with the New Local Government Network, the Centre for Cities and others, has long championed mayors. Mayors bring greater visibility, engagement and accountability to local power. They can take bigger and bolder decisions because of their unique mandates. They allow for better integration of policy across a range of services. What’s more, they are the norm in the majority of democratic countries, which should tell us something.

As the following table shows, most of England’s directly elected mayors have actually done rather well:

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
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

So the Coalition government is right to promote mayors for the big cities. However, its proposals are deficient in at least three ways:

  1. England needs mayors for city-regions, covering functional economic areas such as Greater Manchester or Merseyside, with powers akin to those of the London mayor over transport, economic development, skills and jobs, rather than mayors for existing city areas and their local authority responsibilities. The key economic regions that drive growth do not stop at existing city boundaries, particularly in the Northern metropolitan areas.
  2. Mayors need new funding powers and financial freedoms if they are really to drive change – what ippr North has called “real localism, not lipstick localism”. The great transformations in Britain’s Victorian cities came about because local leaders had the financial clout, civic pride and entrepreneurial zeal to build new municipal institutions and services. Labour’s great municipal leaders of the 20th century – from Herbert Morrison to David Blunkett – built council houses and new transport systems because they had the power and finance to do so. Twenty-first century mayors need the same powers and freedoms.
  3. Elected mayors should be responsible for policing, not elected police commissioners with whom they will inevitably come into conflict. With such different boundaries between city mayors and police constabularies, there is no easy answer to this tension (although city-regional mayors would make life easier, as in London). But it makes sense for mayors to get control of policing, at least in their areas, rather than to share or cede power to a rival elected authority.

Some will argue that elected mayors concentrate power, rather than disperse it. I disagree: they offer the best chance of devolving substantive control from Whitehall to local areas in England. Ministers are more likely to devolve powers to people they believe will be held directly to account for their use by local voters, as is the case with mayors (and direct election would strengthen the democratic legitimacy of those council leaders who already hold four-year terms and strong executive powers).

Now that regional government is passing from the scene, we need powerful city-region leaders, as well as stronger local government everywhere else. Without them, we cannot answer the English governance question – let alone the more vexed one of its political identity (unless you support an English Parliament, which I don’t) – and we will have less chance of securing the strategic leadership we need to renew economic prosperity outside the South East.

A coda to this argument. Last weekend, I watched a brilliant documentary, The Mouth of the Tyne, about T Dan Smith, that ill-fated, corrupt but visionary Newcastle civic leader. Today, many people know him best, if at all, through his alter ego Austin Donohue in the BBC’s Our Friends in the North. But it is well worth watching him for real in this documentary, still ferociously bright, charismatic and opinionated in his later years, as he is interviewed about his time at the helm of Newcastle City Council. You can readily see why he was heading for a fall, of course. But something else is breathtaking: the scale of his ambition and the range of his vision. It is something of which local government has been steadily denuded over the last 30 years, for good and ill. Mayors with real power would help bring it back.

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7 Responses to In praise of mayors

  1. Stephen Gash says:

    There is no just reason for you not supporting an English Parliament. All polls from respectable organisations show that 60%+ of people in England want an English Parliament.

    Busting up England into regions met with real hostility, so the Tories are doing it through the back door with councils merging CEOs etc.

    British MPs oppose an English Parliament only because one would put them all out of a job, just as the Scottish Parliament made them redundant in Scotland. Wales and N. Ireland are likely to get full parliaments soon, so British politicians will only then decide on English matters, much as they do already. Tuition fees for England, free higher education in Scotland and Wales, unless you’re English.

    However, the English are denied their own parliament because they are in a Union that has gone well past its sell-by date. Resentment is growing in England because we are never asked by anybody as to what we want. Even when we are, our desires are booted into touch, as with the farcical Power2010 last year. An English Parliament came out top by a long way, but Helena Kennedy and her Powe2010 cohorts guided the selected members to vote it out. She was actually proud of her “empowerment of the people”. What a joke.

    Instead of telling us what you do and do not want, how about pushing for a referendum on an English Parliament, so that the English can have their say? Or is that too novel a concept in post-devolution Britain?

  2. Wyrdtimes says:

    Any particular reason you don’t want an English Parliament?

    Do you support the idea of a Scottish parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies? Or is it only the English having recognition and representation you don’t like the idea of?

  3. Barry (The Elder) says:

    Whilst City Mayors on the face of it appear to be a good idea they will not even the democratic deficit of England. Nick gives the Greater London Authority (GLA) as an example, but even at this level the GLA have been at loggerheads with the British Govt over funding and planning. Scrutiny of any Mayoral authority will always come under the British Govt and ultimately the House of Lords if any such City Mayoral bill was passed through the commons and this is where the whole idea comes unstuck for two reasons, firstly any bill passing through the HoC can be voted on by all MPs and that includes all MPs within the Celtic fringe, who should have no say in England’s future. Secondly assuming the bill was passed it would need to be rubber stamped by the HoL where once again there will be members from the celtic fringe who can impede progress on an English Bill. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly can make decisions without their bills coming under scrutiny of the HOL. The only fair way to address England’s ecomonic and democratic deficit is to offer England it’s own devolved Parliament and then these Mayoral authorities, should the people of England decide that is the best way forward for local Govt (for that is all this idea is) then by all means go for it.

    I have been to many discussions over the past decade since devolution about the way forward for England in a devolved UK, mostly I hear because there is no percieved demand for an English Parliament (EP) the people of England will not be given the chance to vote for an EP, this despite many polls to the contrary, my answer is lets put it to the vote if there is no demand then England can remain governed by Britain, problem solved.

    What irks me most is that all solutions to England’s democratic deficit come from the British establishment that want England to remain as the last colony of the Empire

  4. James Matthews says:

    The left in general and the IPPR in particular seems to be in a state of permanent denial about the consequences of NATIONAL devolution to Scotland and Wales. Through gritted teeth and choking visibly after twelve years they now admit that it has given rise to a major problem over the recognition of English political identity, but they won’t accept the obvious and only satisfactory solution of an English Parliament. The reason? They are desperate to hold on to the electoral advantage their Scottish and Welsh MPs in the Union Parliament give them when they seek to govern England. In the long run though, this won’t work. Denying the English a devolved parliament will eventually destroy the Union, even if Scottish and Welsh nationalism doesn’t, so, one way or another, they are going to lose their Westminster carpetbaggers.

  5. Geoff, Worcester, England says:

    In reply to Stephen Gash: you say that 60%+ of the English population want an English Parliament. The most recent poll I heard about quoted a figure of 68%, if I remember rightly (can’t remember who did the poll). I suspect that the true figure might be several percentage points higher than the 68% quoted. And to think the fascist Brit establishment keeps telling us that there’s no demand for an English Parliament…

  6. Peter Tomlinson says:

    When, in Dec 2009, DfT decided to provide significant support for a move of public transport to “smart and integrated ticketing” in 9 areas outside London, they effectively pre-empted the city-region movement. DfT made awards of grants for core back office systems to the 9 largest metropolitan areas outside London (6 PTE areas plus 3 other areas). So in my area (#9) they took in Greater Bristol – we already have the West of England Partnership of the 4 UAs, including a Joint Local Transport Committee, but the 4 UAs cannot agree on the next stage: the move to an Integrated Transport Authority.

    Adonis came down here, but whether he talked to all 4 UAs or just Bristol City, I don’t know. He does of course know a lot about transport, so I wonder if he went back to London to ask for joined up govt: pushing for the ITA plus city-region status.

  7. Geoff, Worcester, England says:

    When Adonis went down and spoke to Bristol City, he could have had the decency to speak to Rovers on the same trip.