More mayors for England

English mayors are popular and successful. The government should legislate to introduce more of them
May 23, 2008

The London mayoral election has got a lot of people in the capital talking about politics again. It is partly, of course, the fact that the battle for Britain's most important directly elected political position is being contested by two celebrity candidates—Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson—in a very tight race.

But there is more at stake here than political drama. This election matters for the people of London. True, the Greater London Authority Act of 1999 handed few direct powers to the mayor. The city leader is able to exercise strategic and co-ordinating powers over only transport, policing and economic development. Nonetheless, Livingstone has proved adept at using these powers and his ability to "speak for London" to develop some innovative policies, notably the congestion charge. He has, moreover, seen his powers in the field of housing and planning strengthened.

Beyond London, it is clear that there is something about elected mayors which generates political energy and a sense of connection. As a result of their direct election, mayors are much better known than council leaders, and are in a position to promote greater political accountability.

So why are there only 13 of them in England? Back in the late 1990s, Tony Blair saw mayors as a central plank of his plans for local government reform. Yet the policy has ended up as a damp squib thanks to powerful voices in local government who squashed the idea.

The Local Government Act 2000 made the introduction of an elected mayor contingent upon a local referendum, which could be triggered either by a majority council vote or a petition signed by 5 per cent of local voters. Unsurprisingly, few councils opted to give local people the chance to vote. And where referendums have been triggered by petitions, local elites have been effective in leading opposition campaigns. Roughly twice as many polls have produced "no" as "yes" votes. The 5 per cent threshold in some places exceeds the percentage of people who turn out to vote in local elections.

Given Labour's invincible position at the time, an opportunity was missed to change the culture of local political leadership in England. What makes this even more frustrating is that the last six years show that mayors have worked well. Nowhere have the nightmare scenarios anticipated by sceptics—corruption, the election of joke candidates, the breakdown of local party politics—come true. Even Hartlepool's mayor, Stuart Drummond, who stood for election dressed as a monkey, has confounded sceptics. Since ditching his costume, Drummond has overseen significant improvement in Hartlepool, and was subsequently re-elected with a much increased majority.

Every authority that has introduced a mayor has improved or maintained its position in the Audit Commission's performance assessment. The introduction of a mayor in Hackney, for instance, has coincided with a complete turnaround in the borough's fortunes.

Some of the most innovative policies of the last decade have emerged from mayoral authorities. Livingstone's congestion charge is known throughout the land. In Middlesbrough, Ray "Robocop" Mallon cut crime by 18 per cent in his first year of office, while in Stoke, Mike Wolfe's "better services fund" ("Mike's Millions") has used money raised from an increase in council tax to improve the physical fabric of the city. Meanwhile, Parisians recently re-elected Bertrand Delanoë, impressed by his radical bicycle-hiring scheme.

So how can the campaign for more mayors be revived? The government should think about ditching referendums and simply legislate to introduce mayors in all urban authorities within England. (This should include an option for the mayoral model to be revoked after a four-year term if a sizeable portion of the local electorate is opposed to it, but under this proposal mayors would become the default position.)

This would achieve a welcome uniformity across England's towns and cities—an important consideration, since a sense of confusion about local political structures and the roles of office-holders is one factor behind disenchantment with local politics. Such a policy would be denounced as an act of high-handed centralisation and provoke opposition from powerful voices in local government. But in the long run, mayors will encourage a much greater devolution of powers. This is because one of the major, if rarely spoken, reasons for central government's reluctance to devolve decision-making in areas such as policing is that many in Whitehall remain sceptical of the competence of their local counterparts. They fear that they will continue to get the blame if things go wrong after they let go of their powers. The equivalent of a Bloomberg or Livingstone in Birmingham, Manchester or Sheffield would help the centre to have more trust in the calibre of visible and locally accountable leaders and prompt further devolution.

For Gordon Brown's premiership, there are real gains to be made by rolling out more mayors. By presenting the introduction of mayors as a decentralising measure, Brown would finally have a substantive answer to the "English question," which has arisen following devolution to Scotland and Wales. And mayors would represent a more "populist" commitment to reanimating democracy than some of the esoteric reforms contained in Brown's Governance of Britain programme.

The introduction of mayors in England's towns and cities would at a stroke make politics matter in places far removed from London.

A longer version of this article is in the current issue of IPPR's Public Policy Review