Magazine article Public Finance

What Mandate for Mayors?

Magazine article Public Finance

What Mandate for Mayors?

Article excerpt

Across England, council leaders are playing a game of brinkmanship with the government. At stake is devolution - a prize ministers seem ready to hand over, but only at a price that some local authorities find difficult to stomach.

You could call the game Mayor or No Mayor? New combined authorities in Greater Manchester and other regions are set be given extensive powers over health, transport and other services from next year, but the government believes this leap forwards will only work effectively if the public sees that one individual is in charge locally - and, indeed, ready to carry the can if things go wrong.

Leaving aside London, it is 14 years since English local authorities were given the power to propose their own directly elected mayors. There are currently just 16 in office, from North Tyneside to Torbay.

That means the vast majority of councils are managing quite well without directly elected mayors. Perhaps that is understandable given that, in some respects, the post has been associated with failing local government that needs a strong leader to get it back into shape.

Simon Parker, director of the New Local Government Network, says elected mayors have generally succeeded in tackling broken political cultures. "By and large, they have improved their councils' performance," he says. "People think they're more accountable and decisive."

Sir Robin Wales, mayor of Newham since 2002, believes mayors have more credibility than other council leaders. "Instead of being elected by your peers, you have been elected by the people," he notes.

This mandate underpins a greater appetite for risk taking, he says, including devolving power to neighbourhoods in his London borough. A recognised leader is also more likely to court business successfully. "People get that there is a legitimacy to it," adds Sir Robin.

Dave Budd, mayor of Middlesbrough, agrees that businesses prefer to deal with a high-profile figure. "It opens doors," he says. "It's reinvigorated local government's look and given it more profile and clout."

Budd was elected last year after 13 years as deputy to Ray Mallon, a high-profile former police officer who carried his controversial style of leadership into the council chamber.

With the exception of Mallon, provincial elected mayors have not exactly captured public attention or even interested the media much. Turnouts at mayoral elections are generally about the same as for council elections.

There have also been some public relations disasters. In 2002, Hartlepool elected H'Angus the monkey - the local football team's mascot - as the town's first mayor. Last year, Tower Hamlets was forced to rerun its mayoral election after the High Court ruled that the 2014 result had been tainted by electoral fraud.

In 2012, when 10 cities held referendums over whether to create elected mayors, just Bristol voted yes. Among those that rejected the idea was Manchester, where a `metro mayor' covering io local authorities is due to be elected next year.

So why will it be any different this time around? Will voters in Manchester and other regions really turn out in force in May 2017, to elect someone who becomes synonymous with their area? And who are they likely to choose?

Kieran Quinn, leader of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, one of the io members of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, says the mayor will in effect be an iith leader, alongside the io council leaders that run the combined authority at present, Whether the mayor becomes first among equals, or enjoys a rather strained relationship with the council leaders, remains to be seen.

"We were heading towards a single voice for Greater Manchester. We didn't need a mayor to make us realise that the one thing we were missing was a single voice," says Quinn.

Like many council leaders, Quinn sees a mayor as part of a trade-off with central government. "It's about the powers we're getting," he adds. …

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