With the government talking up the possibility of extra powers as an enticement for cities to vote “yes” on May 3rd, speculation abounds over the potential extension of the remit of city governance. This includes control over rail and bus services, skills, apprenticeships, money to invest in high speed broadband and other economic infrastructure.
The referendums next month across England originate from the Localism Act and include Newcastle upon Tyne in the north east.
There are currently two other directly elected mayors in the region and 13 other cities including Bedford, Hartlepool, Leicester, London, Middlesbrough and Watford.
Proponents point to Leicester as an example of where extra powers have been gained from having a directly elected mayor, for example over transport,
Heavyweight fans of an elected mayor for Newcastle include David Miliband. Speaking at the North East Economic Forum (NEEF) last month, the former foreign secretary backed directly elected mayors, calling them “a more visible form of leadership in cities”.
Having run an all-postal ballot pilot scheme for the local elections in May 2003, Newcastle has a heritage now of a high level of postal votes proportionally of the 202,751 total electorate.
• Elected Mayors: Let the referendum campaigns begin 26 Jan 2012
With ballot papers having started to arrive in people’s homes, the 63,636 postal voters in Newcastle already have the chance to vote on whether to follow suit, this is very much a live election.
Speaking to Left Foot Forward yesterday, former Cabinet minister Lord Adonis had this to say on the current state of play:
“The referendum in Newcastle is wide open. From my visits to the city I can say that there is clearly strong support for an elected mayor, including among political and business leaders.
“An elected mayor would enhance democracy and put the city on the map nationally and internationally in a far bigger way than now. Those are compelling arguments for change when more jobs and growth and better public services are imperative for the future.”
Having undertaken an investigative mayoral tour of Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield while director of the Institute for Government (see pdf), Adonis says:
“In a well-functioning mayoral authority the mayor is a strong influencer who has proactively fostered relationships across their council and locality.
“The mayor then uses his [or her] influence to pro-actively draw together and co-ordinate the various institutions of mayoral governance.”
Warwick’s research team interviewed 42 mayors, staff and senior council figures in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US in what is believed to be the widest ranging international comparative research exercise, in relatively similar political systems in the ‘Anglosphere’.
Research director Professor Keith Grint points to an elected mayor having a direct mandate and the stability of a four-year term as big merits, telling Left Foot Forward:
“Directly elected mayors offer the possibility of greater visibility, accountability and co-ordinative leadership as well as re-enchanting the body politic.”
However, adds Grint:
“In some cities an elected mayor may not be necessary because they have already constructed a significant identity and are vigorously and strategically led.”
One Newcastle Labour Party member, Dr Thom Brooks of Newcastle University, told Left Foot Forward:
“I’m originally from the United States where elected mayors are the norm. Of course, there are many examples of elected mayors that have been problematic. However, on the whole, they have become as essential to democratic life as any other political institution.
“They allow the public to have a voice on matters of particular local concern. I’ve long been surprised by their absence in the UK and I’m hoping for a big vote in favour this May.”
Dr Brooks adds:
“An elected mayor would bring greater political accountability at the local level.”
Unison is not so keen. In the last week, the public sector union has written to their estimated 10,000 members in Newcastle urging a “no” vote. One of the main issues facing Newcastle concern the massive coalition cuts to the public sector, a major part of the local economy.
“We believe that an elected mayor would place too much power in the hands of one person, diminishing the accountability of our existing elected councillors.
“If the city chooses to elect a mayor the cost to the city would be significant, which would ultimately have a negative impact on jobs and services in our city and on UNISON members.”
Brian Moore, chairman of the Yes Campaign locally, combats this with a geographical political point:
“Newcastle has been squeezed by Alex Salmond in Scotland and Boris Johnson in London. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to sit at the same table as the Scots and the Cockneys.”
In addition to Newcastle, mayoral referendums will take place next Thursday in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield. Liverpool and Salford have already chosen to have an elected Mayor, elections for which take place in May.