Will elected mayors usher in real change for British cities?
23 March 2012
Cities that elect a mayor have been promised 'bespoke powers' devolved from central government, but does the deal stack up?
In the narrow confines of pollingbooths at least, voters will confront a choice between change or no change the governance of their local authority. The question on the ballot papers on 3 May is expected to put it simply: how would you like your council to be run? By a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by a vote of the other elected councillors – this is how the council is run now; or by a mayor who is elected by voters – this would be a change from how the council is run now.
Protesters including Lib Dem Birmingham MP John Hemming – of the anti-mayor "Vote No to a Power Freak" campaign – complain this is a loaded question. Regardless, the wider debate over whether an elected mayor equals change is certainly not limited to governance structures.
Voters are already bombarded with government and campaigners' claims that mayors would deliver change way beyond town hall corridors. The buzzword used is "transformation" – of Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Coventry, Wakefield and Bradford.
The promise of growth
Conservative cities minister Greg Clark said at a national campaign launch in January: "Today the great challenge before us is one of economic growth, and I'm convinced that the battle for Britain's prosperity will be won or lost in Britain's cities ... but I believe the evidence also shows that some forms of leadership are better suited than others in helping cities reach their full potential in an increasingly competitive international environment. The world's great cities have mayors who lead their city on the international stage, attracting investment and jobs."
Yet under questioning, researchers at the pro-mayor thinktank the Institute For Government concede there is no empirical evidence that elected mayors have delivered economic growth. Lead researcher Sam Sims says: "This is because nobody has studied it rather than because no evidence has been turned up. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Nobody has studied the relationship between mayors and economic growth empirically. The London School of Economics has presented empirical evidence that well run public services contribute to growth. It's a very difficult thing to study."
However, areas that have already elected a mayor do include some of the most economically challenged towns and cities in the country: Hartlepool, Doncaster, Middlesborough and Stoke-on-Trent. The latter voted in a referendum in 2008 to ditch its elected mayor system and return to the leader and cabinet system.
Sims concedes elected mayors in England have not boosted turnout and participation in local democracy, despite Clark's assertions that elected mayors have a stronger mandate from voters than council leaders. But Lord Adonis, the former head of the institute and transport secretary under Gordon Brown points to evidence that elected mayors are more recognised by the electorate they serve.
Democracy and engagement
"There is good evidence mayors are much better known in their localities than leaders of councils. The polling evidence is they're at least twice as well known," he says.
But what does that amount to if there's no difference in average council turnout, or even evidence of economic growth? "You are more likely to get a leader with a strong popular mandate and a clear plan for the future if they are directly elected, than if they're chosen by a labarynthine method of indirect election which chooses council leaders at the moment.
"There is good evidence that mayors command greater popular recognition. That is an essential precondition for doing so much else in politics – in terms of public engagement, and engaging the public and private sector in pursuit of jobs. It doesn't guarantee you're going to get more jobs or new partnerships with the private sector, but it does make it easier."
Clark, as minister, accepts that parallels cannot be drawn with London mayor Boris Johnson outside the capital, but it keen to use the new cities as a testbed.
"The test of this is putting it into practice," he says. "My experience of the mayorality of London is [that] it is always very clear what the mayor wants. He has a forceful case for it on any issue that affects London. Across the rest of the country, it's more difficult to say that in practice."
The government's big sell to city electorates is that elected mayors will see powers devolved from central government to drive economic growth through Clark's "city deals" – and these bespoke agreements will not be exclusive to cities that choose to vote for an elected mayor.
Clark explains: "We want to devolve power to the rest of the country. What we say very clearly is if governments are going to empower cities, you [councils] need to be confident you've got that democratic mandate and you've got that leadership. Where cities want to take on significant new powers and funding streams, they will need to demonstrate strong accountable leadership, and cities with a directly elected mayor will meet this requirement. So the question is settled if you have a mayor – but again, it's over to you."
A good deal for cities?
City deals may include new funding powers to commission transport and infrastructure, or for apprenticeships and skills. But a "menu of options" for the deals also includes powers set to go to all local authorities: business rate retention and pooling through local enterprise partnerships; tax increment financing; regeneration funding delivered through the Homes and Communities Agency.
Former Birmingham council leader Sir Albert Bore, who intends to stand as mayor, is disappointed that electorates will not be informed until after May of precisely what "bespoke powers" their cities will get.
Clark says consultations with individual cities could result in quite different powers for individual area, adding: "Things that might be suitable for Birmingham, with its scale and standing, might be different from other cities."
So is government simply continuing to exercise power from the centre? Lord Adonis disagrees.
"I simply don't accept local government is weak and ineffective," he says. "Birmingham city council has a budget of £4bn a year. It has huge discretion not only in how it spends that money, but on the quality of services it offers. That's not to say that we aren't too centralised in this country; we are. But how are you more likely to get decentralisation? By having powerful, well-known, commanding figures running the cities, or by having weak figures that bearly one in four of the electorate recognises?"
"I speak as a former secretary of state for transport, dealing with Boris and Ken sitting there with big popular mandates enabled them to get significant decentralisation of powers for which I was responsible. If you have strong city mayors in the major cities outside London over time, you would get more decentralisation of power, including tax-raising powers."
Of course, you can have good or bad elected mayors, just as there are good and bad council leaders. Would central government really be willing to cede more powers to a bad elected mayor?
Lord Adonis responds: "Politics, alas, is a fact of life. But are you more likely to get commanding public figures leading the major cities as a result of a mayoral system? Yes."
He himself wanted to see city-region mayors, covering a wider region that a local authority area and with powers to the London mayor such strategic planning, transport and infrastructure, and policing. But Clark said regional mayors would require "inventing another level of government".
Voices of opposition
Councils such as Coventry, with almost unanimous cross-party opposition to an elected mayor, point to government policy creating a complicated web of overlapping organisations and structures. Coventry claims it is already demonstrating strong leadership and close partnership between public and private sectors through its LEP.
Further opposition to an elected mayor comes on the grounds of the limited checks and balances on the woman or man holding power. A mayor with a four year term could greatly restrict councillors, with elected members requiring a two-thirds majority to veto a mayor's policies.
When the government held a public consultation asking mayoral referendum cities what powers they would like an elected mayor to have it received 58 responses, of which just 19 were from the general public. Former Labour Treasury minister Geoffrey Robinson described it as an exercise of non-engagement. Even Lord Adonis has identified a "lack of public debate" in eight of the 11 cities. He advised the government to postpone referendums for another year in all but three cities – Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol.
Last month, just 18% of people turned out to vote in a mayoral referendum in Salford, with 56% voting in favour.. Another Birmingham mayoral hopeful Sion Simon, who stood down as a Labour MP to fight his campaign, conceded after knocking thousands of doors that "normal people are not talking about this." But Clark maintains that appetite for a mayor will rise in the run up to May 2012.
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