Saturday, 10 March 2012

Why have a Directly Elected Mayor?

Currently there are fourteen directly elected mayors in England, and in addition, Liverpool will elect their first mayor in May 2012.

Up to now, there have been 37 referendums on whether to establish an elected mayor in English local authorities. Twelve have been passed and 25 rejected by the voters. A Government press release last month, said, "The Coalition Agreement proposed the creation of directly elected mayors in the 12 largest cities outside of London, subject to confirmatory referendum and full scrutiny by elected councillors". Of those 12, Leicester elected its mayor last year, and Liverpool will do so this year. The remaining 10 cities are Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle Upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield. As these cities have not voluntarily chosen to go down the route of having elected mayors, as the Local Government Act 2000 and 2007 allows them to, and as they have also not chosen to hold a referendum, the Government has decided to force the cities to hold a referendum, in the name of Localism.

The historic position in local council's is that Councillors are elected by the people at Ward level, and then those Councillors elect someone to be the leader of the council. A cabinet is then formed, which reports to the full council.

An elected mayor need not be a Councillor, and cannot be removed by Councillors; only the electorate can do that every four years. One question that has been nagging away at me is what is the difference between a leader and an elected mayor? I suggest that you look at Nottingham City Council's web site here, where I think you will find some helpful answers to the question. So, on the 3rd May 2012, Nottingham and nine other cities will hold a referendum so that the people can decide whether they want to go down the route of having an elected mayor.

The Government's View
According to their press release, the Government believes that elected mayors can provide cities with a strong, visible leadership that will help them prosper nationally and internationally. The Minister for Cities, Greg Clark said, "Out greatest cities can benefit from the prestige and international standing a mayor can bring, helping them to achieve their full potential. For Britain to be successful our cities need to be successful. An elected mayor with a strong voice can seize the opportunities for their city to compete on the world stage".

In the House of Commons Library Standard Note published on the 10th February, it says, "As regards mayoral powers, the Localism Act allows for the delegation of 'local public functions' to 'permitted authorities'. The Government is taking a 'bespoke' city-by-city approach to the decentralisation of powers". 

Nottingham City Council's View
The city council are opposed to the introduction of an elected mayor, and have been consistent with that view since they passed a resolution in July 2011.

In the Council's opinion;

  • The Government's Impact Assessment identifies that a mayor would cost around £1 million over five years. Government estimates show the costs of the referendum as £300,000, elections in 2012 and 2017 as £384,000 in total and average additional salary costs of an elected mayor over Council Leader as £70,613 a year. 
  • It has been suggested that some of the costs could be covered by reducing the number of councillors, but this would reduce representation at a neighbourhood level. Elsewhere, ward councillors' work has shifted to the mayor, undermining their role.
  • Nottingham City Council's current strong leader and cabinet model requires the Executive to recommend the budget and strategic policies to Council which may approve, overturn or amend them by a simple majority. Under a mayor and cabinet, the Executive submits the budget and strategic policies to Council which ultimately may only amend or overturn them by a two-thirds majority. This seems to diminish the role of council by making it harder to overturn a mayoral decision. 
  • The Government's move to instigate a change of governance arrangements should be a matter for local councils and is not compatible with 'localism'. 
So Nottingham City Council are at war with the Government (not for the first time I might add), but it's the people who will decide on the 3rd May. I'm not eligible to vote as I live just outside the city boundary, but if I was, how would I vote? The Guardian, in an editorial on the 27th February came out in favour of directly elected mayors. Two days later they published a very interesting series of letters on the subject. In carefully considering the matter, I find myself with four concerns that lead me to the view that I'm opposed to the introduction of a directly elected mayor. 

As I've already mentioned, the Government is taking a 'bespoke' city-by-city approach to the decentralisation of powers. This means that different mayors may have different powers, and we don't know if it will be up to those mayors to negotiate those powers for their city. Here's a major problem for the referendum, voters are being asked to make a decision about whether to change to the mayoral model without having the full information on what powers a mayor would have. I find this to be totally unacceptable.

Also, the Government's view that "elected mayors can provide cities with strong, visible leadership" seems to be part of a belief in the power of super-personalities, and as one of the Guardian letters says, "leads to the foolishness of celebrity worship and the obscenity of million-pound payments to City fat cats". (If a recent letter to the Nottingham Post is to be believed, this is happening in a neighbouring City with a newly elected mayor who has proposed to increase his salary from £44,000 to £100,000 a year). I think that there's enough cult of personality in central Government without introducing it into local Government as well. And who is to say that a new system will be better than the current one? Who is to say that the right person will be elected, "who can provide cities with strong, visible leadership"? The Guardian is correct when it says that "such an outcome is by no means certain". It also points out that "some elected mayors have struggled to be effective, sometimes on competence grounds and especially if elected as protest candidates against the town hall establishment". 

I have a real problem with the imposition of a referendum in the name of localism. Another letter in the Guardian draws attention to an article written by Professor George Jones and Professor John Stewart, where they say that the Localism Act 2011 "imposes referendums on local people and local authorities, not sought by either", and "is not based on a logic of localism, but on a logic of centralism". Nottingham Council, elected by local people, are being forced to go down a route dictated to them by central Government. I cannot be happy with this.

Finally, something that is far more important to me than any of the above. No system is perfect, and mistakes will happen, but Matthew Huntbach in a letter to the Guardian has encapsulated very well my thinking here, so I quote from him. "The committee system of local government, with wards small enough for personal contact, is still a key aspect of winning, and offering a career path into politics to those who don't have the fortune to run a city-wide campaign, is a glorious part of Britain's heritage. (The Guardian's) claim that all power in the hands of one person is more effective than power shared by representatives of various opinions echoes the line used in the last century in favour of a similar system of governance, though at a national level than local level, that it 'makes the trains run on time'". 

I hope that Nottingham votes NO to having a directly elected mayor. 

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