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Home arrow Political science arrow Devolution and Localism in England

Directly elected city mayors

Both the Coalition Government and the previous Labour Government introduced major changes in the management of local government in England. Traditionally, councils were run by elected local councils which in turn elected their own Council Leaders. These leaders in turn either operated through a committee system or created a cabinet from available councillors. The title of Mayor has been largely ceremonial. The Labour Government then passed the Greater London Authority Act in 1999, which created statutory provision for a directly elected mayor in London only and the first election took place the following year. In the Local Government Act of 2000, other councils had the option of deciding to have a directly elected mayor instead of a council leader. Where they did not move to a mayoral system, the Local Government Act 2007 allowed for the adoption of a 'strong leader plus' model.

Then in December 2011 the Coalition Government's Localism Act was passed, which included the intention to require the largest English cities (Core Cities) to instigate referenda on whether to have directly elected Mayors and to give mayoral powers to create development corporations. This was deemed necessary
because the government wanted strong leadership and believed that a directly elected Mayor would give strong leaders greater legitimacy. The idea of a directly elected Mayor caused considerable disagreement among our interviewees. Some were strongly in favour: 'The principle of an elected mayor and local control of business rates is absolutely sound' (local business CEO); 'What it brings is simplicity and simplicity would actually make things happen quicker' (Local Authority Economic Developer). Where elected Mayors already existed under the old Labour legislation there were many favourable responses to the idea. 'I do feel as a resident that having one person that everyone can vote for is massively powerful … It is a presidential style type of election … a City mayor relates to his constituents … His primary focus will be the city' (Local Authority Director). However, it was recognised that the success of a Mayor depended largely upon the competence of whoever got the job. 'If you get a good one then it could be a real bonus and if you get a bad one then it is disaster. It is like everything else, there is nothing worse or better than democracy' (Local Authority Leader); 'Clearly the right person can do a very good job but I would want to know what checks and balances were in existence to make sure that they had a broad representative base within their work' (Local Authority old style Mayor). Under the legislation, the directly elected Mayor and the executive he appoints will be scrutinised by elected councillors but cannot be deposed by them. Therefore, 'the ability to scrutinise, I suppose, is weakened' (civil servant with regional responsibilities); 'all power rests with the Mayor … in reality the Mayor only needs the Council once a year to vote his budget through' (leading local businessman). Others expressed concern about 'personality politics' (Local Authority Leader); '[Councillors] have gone through a democratic process and they feel that, and they are, very, very close to

their constituents' (Core City Local Authority Director).

Similar concerns have been expressed publicly about the London Mayor. Councillor Shawcross is quoted in connection with her role in the scrutiny of the London Mayor, as follows: 'opposition members are cut out of access to basic fundamental information about things like costs, contracts and decision-making. In traditional councils there are three levels of information: private information that the council leader sees, confidential information that councillors of all sides see and completely public information. At the GLA we do not have anything in the middle. All private information stays with the mayor and the people in control' (quoted in Marsh, 2013).

It also raised questions about the purpose of the rest of elected local government in such a system, even among those who are enthusiastic for it: 'My personal view is yes it is a good model. Why? Because we have over-bureaucratic structures which puts off local government making key decisions … My difficulty is that I've got to find a role for the other 70 councillors' (Local Enterprise Partnership Advisor); 'We've got over 50 elected members … But only a handful of them have jobs in the administration. The rest of them are asking' what is our role here?'(Local Authority Director); 'I do think [an elected mayor] is a positive thing. Inversely, the issue now is what is the point of having councillors? … if the Mayor
is making all the decisions why have we got councillors?' (3rd Sector CEO); 'we would be better off having a smaller council … and pay them a proper salary' (leading local businessman).

Even where there were no proposals for directly elected city Mayors, the Coalition Government was concerned to strengthen the role of existing council leaders and their cabinets. Some were cynical about this: 'I did joke … that I imagine the position of the Conservatives is that they would like strong leader cabinet model if they win control, but if they don't win control they will want the Committee system' (local politician). As one 3rd Sector CEO told us: 'My own view is localism worked best with the old fashioned committee structure … I don't think emphasis on the rule of individuals be they council leaders or elected mayors is actually defensible. Collective responsibility is much more likely to produce the right solution' (3rd Sector CEO).

Many were further concerned about the relationships between the new directly elected Mayors and the directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners which the Coalition Government has also introduced. Comments ranged from the scatological – 'If I was the elected mayor … I think I'd be pretty pissed off if and when an elected police commissioner takes office' (Local Authority CEO) – to the more thoughtful – 'We could see a bit of a conflict between the mayor and the Police and Crime Commissioner on a sub-regional basis. Why not give the city mayor the powers of the Crime Commissioner? Or give him the power to appoint somebody to do it' (Local Authority Director). The elections for elected Police Commissioners were held in November 2012. The electoral turnout was very low, and a new independent report recently called for their replacement with a system with greater local authority and citizen involvement (Stevens, 2013).

 
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