Magazine article Public Finance

A Mayor You Can't Refuse?

Magazine article Public Finance

A Mayor You Can't Refuse?

Article excerpt

Directly elected mayors are back on the political agenda, with think-tanks, the government and even the opposition calling for more of them. Yet the evidence is clear: generally the public and local authorities do not want this method of local leadership.

If they did, they could have it under existing powers. If local people or the council want an elected mayor, they can call for a referendum. Just 5% of the electorate need to sign a petition for the referendum to be held. This is community empowerment - local people can have a mayor if they wish, but cannot have one imposed on them.

The government, however, is considering imposing referendums even when there have been no petitions. It is also considering giving additional funds and powers to authorities that adopt the model, presumably without a referendum. Such an approach is wrong in principle and is best described as bribery to get what the government wants.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Public Policy Research, an advocate of community empowerment, goes even further, arguing that directly elected mayors should be imposed not merely on local authorities but also on their citizens.

Why then is Communities and Local Government Secretary Hazel Blears, another champion of community empowerment, retreating from that very issue in this case? There is only one answer: the mayoral issue has not generally come up with the answer the government wants. Of the 35 referendums held so far, all but 12 have rejected the proposal, including the one imposed on the London Borough of Southwark. It is hardly surprising that the latter also had the lowest turnout.

In Birmingham, the leading evening newspaper printed petition forms in its pages over a prolonged period, but the signatories still fell far short of the required 5%. This week's white paper, Communities in control: real people, real power, proposes reducing the 5% test to 4%, 3% or 2%, which shows how desperate the government is to make local authorities adopt directly elected mayors. In other countries, the trigger for referendums is much higher.

The main argument against elected mayors is the concentration of power in a single person. Those advocating this model assume that there must be individual leadership rather than collective or team leadership. But in central government there is wide recognition of the dangers of over-dominant executives and presidential-style government - it is better to have the checks and balances of collegiate leadership.

Collective leadership can explore policy from different perspectives, including possible impacts in a variety of contexts, pitfalls ahead and the consequences for different people and groups. Adapting a phrase by Young Foundation director Geoff Mulgan: 'All of us are smarter than any one of us.'

Another major objection is the lack of a power to eject bad mayors during their four-year term. Many states in the US and Germany have the power to 'recall' their mayors and force a new election, following either a petition from the people or a vote of no-confidence by the council. Advocates of community empowerment should press for similar powers for British councils and citizens. But there is no sign that the government is considering this.

The call to impose these mayors everywhere has been stimulated by the recent election campaign in London, which generated much publicity. The 45% turnout in the capital is said to have clinched the argument in favour of directly elected mayors, even though it is only a little above the 44.2% turnout in the 1981 elections for the Greater London Council.

The proper comparison is not with a Greater London Authority drenched by national publicity but with the 12 local authorities with elected mayors. The national media have paid little attention to them. Their turnout has on average been no greater and no less than in other equivalent local authorities. The Electoral Reform Society in 2007 reported that mayoral elections 'did not raise turnout much from that attained in normal local elections, and when an entirely separate election was held, turnout was abysmal'. …

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