The Mayor’s Office in London. Photo: Patrick Down
In 2000, Londoners voted for the first elected mayor in Britain’s history. The mayor of London and the Greater London Authority were created to fill a gap, the capital having been without a citywide authority since the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986. Elsewhere, by contrast, elected mayors are being grafted on to a traditional local authority structure in which in the past the whole council was the executive and all councillors in theory enjoyed legislative power. More recently, most councils have been run on a Cabinet system. It is not yet clear whether the graft will take. But if it does, the mayors could spearhead a revival of local government and civic pride.
Directly elected mayors will be highly visible local leaders. A 2004 survey showed that 57 per cent of the public could name their elected mayor from a prompt list, compared to just 25 per cent who could name their council leader. Mayors will enjoy a citywide mandate derived from the voters rather than from a party group. It would defeat the object of the exercise if a directly elected mayor representing the city could be thwarted by a bare single-party majority on the council. Therefore the mayor’s policy proposals and his budget can only be rejected if there is a two thirds majority against them on the council.
But suppose the voters elect a minority or independent mayor who is unable to secure the support of 34 per cent of the councillors. That is no mere theoretical possibility. Of the 22 individuals outside London who have held mayoral office, seven have been independents and two Liberal Democrats, while Ken Livingstone won the first mayoral election in London as an independent, defeating the official Labour Party candidate.
While the Greater London Authority is elected by proportional representation, other councils in England are elected by the first-past-the-post-system. This often produces large party majorities—sometimes one-party councils—on a minority of the vote. If the majority group in such councils refuses to co-operate with the mayor, the outcome could be deadlock.
To overcome this problem, the mayor would have to select his or her Cabinet from the majority party. Where the mayor lacks a two-thirds majority, he or she might have to govern collectively with the Cabinet. The mayor would then have to share power with the majority on the council. That could dilute accountability since voters would not know whether the mayor or the majority party was responsible for local policies.
In local authorities where the mayor belongs to the majority party, a different problem will arise, since there may be insufficient checks and balances on the executive. Voters often claim that they want “strong government,” but they sometimes do not like it when they get it. They can come to criticise local government as they do central government for being too “presidential.” Moreover, councillors in such authorities will enjoy little legislative power, and may feel they have little to do. The Localism Act requires authorities to form overview and scrutiny committees whose role will be similar to that of select committees of the Commons. The public, however, may continue to believe that they elect councillors to be decision-makers not scrutinisers—that someone they elect has real power.
That problem can be overcome by developing a new role for councillors. This can be done by decentralising power to the ward level, where councillors can act as ombudsmen—intermediaries between the voter and what can be seen as a cumbersome and remote bureaucracy administering local policies.
Mayors will be seen as representatives of their cities, just as Boris Johnson is seen as Mr London. But British local authorities have few formal powers compared with those elsewhere. In New York City, the mayor runs all the public services. After 11th September, Mayor Rudy Giuliani did not need to seek approval from other layers of government to repair the damage, since he had direct responsibility for the police and hospitals. The mayor of Paris, also, has much wider functions in transport and planning than British mayors. The government has promised to devolve new powers to mayors, but it is not yet clear what these will be. If mayors are to play a leading role in economic regeneration, they will need greater powers over local transport, strategic planning and education.
A further weakness of the proposals is that they do nothing to reform local government finance. How can a mayor exercise executive authority when he lacks effective taxing powers? Local government in Britain raises on average just 17 per cent of its revenue from local taxation, the highly regressive council tax. The average is 55 per cent in the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, while in New York, 70 per cent of local expenditure is funded out of local taxation. In Britain, by contrast, the bulk of local finance comes from central grants. This dilutes the role of community leadership by making the mayor a supplicant of the centre.
Though there will no doubt be difficulties, the mayoral model has the potential to regenerate England’s cities and to restore the civic pride and patriotism that is a precondition of effective local government. There is already evidence, inevitably limited, that mayors have improved local government. A 2008 Audit Commission report gave three of the 12 mayoral authorities—Lewisham, Hartlepool and Middlesborough—four stars for effectiveness, the highest possible rating. One authority, Stoke, scored badly, and decided to revert to the more traditional council model.
Above all, mayors can help to ensure that English cities have a genuine political voice, that they are not squeezed between Boris Johnson in London and Alex Salmond in Edinburgh. The West Lothian question, which asks why Scottish MPs should be able to vote on English domestic affairs while English MPs cannot vote on Scottish domestic affairs, which are devolved to the Scottish parliament, has no logical answer in a system of asymmetrical devolution. But directly elected mayors could do much to assuage the sense of alienation in provincial England which lies at the root of the question. In London, survey evidence in 2004 indicated that, while 65 per cent identified with the mayor, only 57 per cent identified with England. So city mayors could not only improve local government in England. By strengthening civic identity in our great industrial cities, they could also help to hold the United Kingdom together.