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