Directly elected mayors with increased powers will reinvigorate local governance

A new report says that by giving elected mayors both greater powers and an increased mandate, local democracy and governance can be reinvigorated.

If the Left wants to restate its localist agenda, then looking again at elected mayors is a good place to start. After years of letting the mayoral agenda drift, despite repeated promises in general election manifestos, the Government should now look to reinvigorate local democracy through introducing a new mayoral governance model, pulling down powers from the corridors of Whitehall, closer to the people as a first step in further decentralisation.

The future holds a stark reduction in public sector funding no matter which party wins in May. In spite of increased efficiencies and the innovations in service delivery, this decrease in funding will inevitably mean difficult choices about local service provision.

In this climate it is more important than ever that local people feel engaged in the tough decisions that will have to be made, and know who is accountable for making them.

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) believes that by giving elected mayors both greater powers and an increased mandate, local democracy can be reinvigorated and governance brought down to a closer and more appropriate level.

The UK has one of the most centralised governance structures in the western world. Mayors could hold the key to shifting power from Whitehall to localities. By giving elected mayors the tools and powers they need, mayors would be able to further transform the way communities and citizens are served.

These powers should be centred on greater financial flexibility and increased control over public service delivery in a local area.

In itself, however, this does not hold the answers to greater involvement in local democracy. With public trust in politicians at an all time low, politics must be opened up. Too often the selection process for candidates at all levels is seen as a secretive, shadowy process, with very few members of the public actually involved to any degree.

It is high time these political processes are opened up, with the introduction of open primaries. This should be the domain of the progressive left – the parties of the people – who have the most to gain from this agenda, instead of trailing behind the right.

Government must urgently take another look at the mayoral model. With the strengthened mandate given by open primaries and the direct accountability of elected mayors, this new model could provide a prime opportunity for Labour’s rhetoric on localism and opportunity for all to be turned into action and reinvigorate local democracy.

Our guest writers are Nirmalee Wanduragala and Nick Hope, co-authors of the NLGN’s “New Model Mayors: Democracy, Devolution and Direction” report

17 Responses to “Directly elected mayors with increased powers will reinvigorate local governance”

  1. Steve Chambers

    RT @leftfootfwd: Directly elected mayors with increased powers. //is.gd/70VBn Should councils be forced into this?

  2. Leon Green

    RT @leftfootfwd Directly elected mayors with increased powers will reinvigorate local governance: //is.gd/70VBn

  3. Mark

    It sounds good but remember that only 1 in 5 pounds spent by a council is raised locally, the rest comes from central government. So you can elect representation but it can’t do much about taxation, it can only lobby Westminster for more funds.

    Also, remember that when offered the chance to vote, the wise electorate plumped for a monkey mascot or a populist who deliberately portrayed himself as “robocop”. Not that Labour, Lib Dems and the Tories should hog power but in votes dominated by low turnout, the loudest, or possibly the wealthiest, candidate can win.

    I’d like to see the Lib Dem policy of local income tax brought in, then you’d get real local democracy. You can see examples of this in the US or Switzerland, where federal and cantonal taxes vary.

  4. jim jepps

    I think this move towards single, powerful people is the very opposite of the kind of democratic reform that we need.

    We need a more proportional and representative political system where more voices are heard. To turn local government into fiefdoms for strong individuals seems like a recipe for corruption, disenfranchisement and the entrenchment of a class of professional politicians.

    far better to return to the days when local government had more power and that each local councillor was able to influence what the council did. Those were the days when ordinary people, drawn from the ranks of people who’d had ‘normal’ lives and jobs were able to influence local politics.

  5. emilia

    When I lived in Birmingham, at the time when elected mayors were being introduced there was a vote on what style of local authority wanted to see, which went against an elected mayor in Birmingham. How reinvigorating of democracy would it then be to impose directly elected mayors over people who did not wish to have that system?

  6. Erica Ballmann

    RT @leftfootfwd: Directly elected mayors with increased powers will reinvigorate local governance: //is.gd/70VBn

  7. jkbrum

    This is a duff article, calling for an equally duff set of ideas.
    1) Directly elected mayors are a duff idea for the reasons given by the other commentators. Centralising power into the hands of one individual reduces democratic engagement. The diversities of cities, such as Birmingham, can’t be represented by one person ( and don’t try to justify it by saying they will have lots of advisors and deputy mayors). Democracy requires deliberation, compromise and negotiation; the values that are devalued by the narrative myth of strong leadership that usually accompanies calls for directly elected mayors

    2) Politics is about choices. There is plenty of money for stupid military adventures, hardware and bailing out casino capitalism, so please don’t trip out the old eyewash that money is tight. Money is tight because choices have been made to deprive public services in preference to those projects than benefit the few at the expense of the many.
    .
    3) I can’t believe that so many on the Left have fallen for the idea of that open primaries are somehow more representative and democratic than party political representatives. Government is about politics. deciding what government is for, how it is to be funded and what public goods it should supply are political decisions, driven by ideology. To deny the importance of politics and ideology in favour of a beauty contest is to devalue democracy and the opportunity for people to make a choice on what they think will help them to the good life.
    4) Lastly, this is a no more than a puff article bigging up yet another piece of opinion based on weak evidence. BTW who is funding NLGN these days? Or are you too shy to say?

  8. Anon E Mouse

    This is going to be about as popular as the congestion charge in Manchester or the regional assembly’s in the North East.

    Have people in this country learned nothing?

  9. neil mcinroy

    Directly elected mayors will narrow and create a shallow democracy. We need a broad and deep local democracy. //bit.ly/7EypYg

  10. Mark Pack

    I’m dubious about the merits of directly elected Mayors, and it’s actually pieces like this which reinforce my doubts.

    We’ve had directly elected Mayors for some time now, so if they are such a good thing why isn’t the argument in their favour based on evidence about what they’ve done?

    This is by no means the first piece I’ve seen which argues the principle but goes light on the evidence, and each time I see one I think, “But if the case is so good, why aren’t you drowning me in evidence?”

    Given the lack of public enthusiasm for Mayors (few referendums – and in many Mayor idea defeated), I’m also rather dubious about the “it’s great for democracy” argument. At the very least, to be convincing it should start form some understanding of why people haven’t been liking the idea.

  11. Nick Hope

    Glad this has provoked some reaction! I’ve tried to provide some responses to/thoughts on as many of the key points made in the time I have…

    Mark – In response to you point about representation and taxation. Greater fiscal autonomy and local revenue raising powers could be exactly the kind of thing to go hand-in hand with directly elected mayors. The strong local mandate and clear lines of direct accountability they provide could hold the key to devolution of such powers from Whitehall.

    Jim – I understand your concerns about sideling councillors. I fully agree that local councillors should be empowered. Devolving budgets down to the lowest spatial level is key to personalising and tailoring ser vices and a ‘golden thread’ of democracy through councillors at the ward level will be key.

    Emilia – apologies if we implied mayors should be imposed. I completely agree it should be for local people to decide. The difficulty is that narrow minded political and institutional self-interest has too often led to fierce resistance and greater powers need to be offered that are commensurate with the “pain” of governance changes to overcome these barriers at a local level.

    JKBrum – I completely agree politics is about choices. With downward pressure on public spending these choices will be more stark and important than for a long time. People need top be better engaged with politics and decisions at the local level – the high visibility and platform of mayoral contests will an great mechanism for this.

    Anon E Mouse – If there was an elected mayor in Greater Manchester they might have had the democratic mandate (and avoided pressure for a referendum fro Whitehall) to drive through the congestion charge – like Ken Livingston did in London.

    Mark – There are so few mayors (most, except the Mayor of London, with the powers they need to drive reform) that it is hard to draw firm conclusions. There are anecdotal examples of good mayors and bad mayors (much like good council leaders and bad council leaders). We know for example that evidence from the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) that many mayors have proved to be highly capable leaders, with the Audit Commission praising North Tyneside for being one of the most improved councils in the country and Hackney demonstrating sustained improvement as it moved from a 1-star authority in 2005 to a 3-star and improving strongly authority in 2008, winning the Local Government Chronicle award for Most Improved Council in 2009 and being nominated for LGC Council of the Year 2010.

    Importantly, people know who there leader is and how to hold them to account for performance (an NLGN poll conducted during the first term of elected mayors found that, just 18 months after being elected, on average 57% of people could identify their mayor, compared to only 25% who could identify their leader in councils without a mayor).

  12. jim jepps

    I’m not surprised that if you promote an individual well above their fellow councillors that more people can identify them, but it doesn’t mean that’s a more democratic, representative system where we’ve ditched any attempt to gain proportionality.

    Holding a directly elected mayor to account is difficult and they rarely have proper scrutiny by full council. Holding a head of a (directly elected) council to account is easy and replacing them is easy too. You’re stuck with a DE Mayor even when you discover they’re rubbish.

    We need to move away from personality politics of celeb professional politicians and return to the days when we had councillors making decisions for councils that had actual power rather than having to act as an administrative arm of central government.

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  14. Anon E Mouse

    Nick Hope – Hmmmmm. Fair enough point though…

  15. Kevin

    Oh dear, no. Really… no. Evidence that directly elected mayors reinigorate local democracy simply isn’t backed up by experience in the limited number of places where referenda have taken place to create them.

    Take my own borough of Newham in east London. If only many of us who live here in the borough had realised eight years ago what we were letting ourselves in for when only 26% of the population turned about to vote in the referendum for a directly elected mayor, there might have been some actual concerted campaigning in favour of a ‘no’ vote. For far from helping to improve local accountability, as you have claimed, the direct election of our local mayor has seen the council turn into something akin to a eighteenth-century monarchy.

    For all intents and purposes, Mayor Sir Robin Wales IS Newham council. No substantive decisions can be made without him but for an organisation the size of a local authority to function at all, many decisions must inevitably be made in his absence. The result is that every stratum of the council seeks to anticipate what the layer above might be thinking, all the way to the those closest to the brooding, ill-tempered and unpredictable ruler. Timidity crushes initiative, fear ingrains institutional inertia, culminating in a mixture of incompetence and officiousness . This isn’t the product of some great conspiracy – it’s just that everyone below the man at the top has the nominal trappings of power but none of the authority to make it meaningful. Those prepared to play safe and ingratiate themselves with the people immediately above them seem to survive, which probably explains the unbelievable mediocrity of some of the middle management within the council. Inventiveness and courage are just not worth risking a public sector pension for.

    And what has happened, you might ask, to the backbench councillors providing the checks and balances of scrutiny and overview?

    That would INDEED be a good question. The trouble is that 93% of them are members of the same party in an area where they don’t so much count the local Labour vote as weigh it. I realise, of course, that Newham isn’t alone in this respect: there are Labour and Tory councils around the country that dominate local political life and face little or no opposition. But creating a post as powerful as an elected mayor within such an environment, in Newham or anywhere else, simply makes matters worse.

    With little apparent need to fight for votes, local politics loses its vibrancy and becomes little more than a struggle to secure the posts of Cabinet or executive member or ‘lead councillor’, which all attract a financial reward. Indeed, many of those who hold such positions in Newham are paid considerably more for representing their constituents than the average local wage. It’s understandable that the last person an ambitious councillor in the majority-party wants to upset is a Mayor who controls this patronage and the same is true of those who have become accustomed to describing their full-time job as ‘councillor’. Scrutiny and overview are not worth risking a demotion, political exile or the dole for.

    And there is absolutely nothing we can do about this now. It is almost impossible for us to change the way we are governed if we decided we are no longer happy with the experiment of a directly elected mayor. Legislation isn’t much help: even if a petition was raised, the council would have to give its permission for a new referendum and, as I mentioned earlier, Sir Robin Wales effectively IS Newham council. Take a guess what the response would be.

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