Come 3 May voters in Leeds, Wakefield, Manchester, Sheffield and Bradford will be among those to go to the polls. Birmingham, Nottingham, Coventry, Bristol and Newcastle will also vote, while Liverpool and Leicester have already chosen to switch to the new system without holding a referendum. The government is keen for cities to adopt elected mayors, which it says will lead to more power devolved locally. However, critics claim they are being pressured into making a change that is not necessarily a good thing.
“I’m sceptical about mayors,” says professor Alan Harding, director of the University of Manchester’s Institute for Political and Economic Governance. “I think it would be a complete and utter waste of time for Manchester, which has been run perfectly effectively for donkey’s years.
“There are certain places in the world which have directly elected mayors, and I don’t think you could say hand on heart it makes a decisive difference to how those places function. At the end of the day it’s not the position that makes the difference – it’s the quality of the people who occupy the position and how they make use of the opportunities that they’ve got.”
Since the Local Government Act was introduced by New Labour in 2000, 16 English towns have adopted elected mayors, ranging from London to Bedford, Middlesbrough and Watford. But the current government, as part of its 2011 Localism Act, wants to expand the system across all of the country’s major cities, with May’s mandatory referendums an integral part of that process.
“I’m really enthusiastic about this because I profoundly believe we should be moving our country to having more directly elected mayors in our big cities,” prime minister David Cameron said in a speech at 10 Downing Street last week. “I know it is a big cultural change for Britain, it is a big move for us, and it is absolutely going to be up to the people of those cities to make that decision, but I very much hope we will get some yes votes across our country.”
Thinktank the Institute for Government (IFG) has also backed the push towards having more elected mayors. It believes the change will lead to more funding and independence handed over to cities, with increased stability and better leadership.
“Mayors are likely to bring significant benefits – in terms of visibility, stability and responsiveness to the electorate,” says Tom Gash, programme director at the IFG. “Mayors are elected every four years by tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of voters. Council leaders are chosen by other councillors and can be ousted at virtually any point if they can’t keep these councillors happy.”
Statistics produced by the IFG show that 38% of people questioned nationally want a directly elected mayor rather than a council leader. But a separate poll earlier in March revealed 62% were unaware of the May referendums, with 90% saying they had been given little or no information about it. As a likely result of this, during an elected mayors referendum in Salford in January, just 18.1% of the 171,000 eligible voters took part.
According to Steve Connor, chief executive of Manchester PR firm Creative Concern, there is little appetite for the change in his home city because it would not offer any tangible benefit. Connor recently authored a letter, published in the Manchester Evening News and signed by academics, artists and businessmen, calling elected mayors a “bad deal”.
“For Manchester it’s a really bad option,” Connor says, “because we’ve got ten local authorities, not one, and we’ve got Greater Manchester, which is the scale at which our city works.
“If it was one elected mayor for the whole of Manchester – that would be a different issue. But this referendum is about a mayor just for the Manchester city council area, and it’s crackers.”
In London Boris Johnson is mayor of Greater London, which puts him in charge of all 32 of the capital’s boroughs. But Manchester is being offered an elected mayor who would only be responsible for the City of Manchester (one borough), as opposed to Greater Manchester in its entirety (ten boroughs).
“Elected mayors should be for larger areas – like London – they shouldn’t be for smaller areas,” Connor says. “There’s no demand for it, we haven’t asked for it, and yet it’s been forced on us.”
Last week the BBC quoted an unnamed Downing Street adviser saying Manchester would be at a competitive disavantage if its citizens didn’t vote yes on 3 May. In Wakefield council leader Peter Box has accused central government of engaging in “Alice in Wonderland politics” for asking people to vote on something that they are not fully informed about. Meanwhile, an anti-mayors campaign group called “Vote No to a Power Freak” has been founded by politicians in Birmingham who claim elected mayors will lead to corruption and a form of dictatorship.
“Concentrating power into the hands of one individual makes it easy for them to do things that mean other people aren’t consulted – unless they are wealthy people or high up in the bureaucracy of the council,” says John Hemming MP, a Liberal Democrat involved with the Vote No to a Power Freak campaign. “It leads towards corruption, because power corrupts – the more power you give people the more corruption there is.
“If you think politics should be a celebrity contest once every four years and otherwise people do what they feel like, then great – vote for it. But if you think politics is about policies and trying to make a society where everybody is taken into account – then oppose it.”
In Liverpool the prevailing attitude is more positive. The city’s council decided to adopt an elected mayor without holding a referendum after being promised a £130m funding package from Whitehall in return, including a £75m economic development grant and a low tax enterprise zone in the north of the city.
“It’s time to embrace mayoral politics,” says Liam Fogarty, a former BBC journalist running as an independent candidate for Liverpool mayor. “It will be different to the sort of politics that we’re used to, I think and I hope. A mayoral figure provides clear visible leadership – there’s no hiding place for a mayor – and I think that makes for a stronger democracy.”
Among the other candidates who will be running for mayor of Liverpool are Herbert Howe, a celebrity hairdresser, and Tony Mulhearn, the former Militant leader who has pledged to reverse all council cuts should he get elected. Phil Redmond, the creator of TV series Brookside, Grange Hill and Hollyoaks, finally ruled himself out of the race last week, after much speculation that he would stand.
“At the moment we have this whole kind of alphabet soup of people taking important decisions that are not visible or held to account – quangos, joint boards, partnerships, multi agency agreements,” Fogarty says. “If the price of accountability is the odd eccentric, I think that’s a fair price to pay.”
What are elected mayors?
There are elected mayors in cities across the world, including New York, London, Barcelona, Chicago, Frankfurt and Sydney. Elected mayors hold varying degrees of executive power and have to ensure council services – such as regeneration, transport and education – are delivered efficiently.
In England elected mayors have the power to select their own cabinet whose advice they are able to overrule. This differs from the status of a council leader, who is required to develop a consensus with his or her cabinet over any decisions.
Advocates of elected mayors say that they will shift power away from central government, enhance the prestige of the country’s largest cities, provide better local public services and more accountability.
“I believe the evidence also shows that some forms of leadership are better suited than others in helping cities reach their full potential in an increasingly competitive international environment,” says Conservative cities minister Greg Clark. “The world’s great cities have mayors who lead their city on the international stage, attracting investment and jobs.”
But critics argue elected mayors lead to a greater focus on personalities than policies, will result in a kind of “elected dictatorship” focusing too much power in the hands of one person, and are not proven to be a marked improvement over the traditional leader and cabinet council model.
“There is nothing in this but a title, as it were,” says Professor Alan Harding, director of the University of Manchester’s Institute for Political and Economic Governance. “There are limited new powers or resources available to local authorities as a result of going for a directly elected mayor.”
A report published last week by thinktank the Institute for Government (IFG) revealed that 38 per cent of people questioned nationally want a directly elected mayor rather than a council leader. 25 per cent would prefer not to change to an elected mayor, 23 per cent did not mind either way, and 14 per cent did not know.
The IFG’s research, based on a survey of 2300 adults conducted by YouGov, also revealed that just 15 per cent of people said they knew the name of their local council leader and of those around half (8 per cent) could correctly name them. According to the thinktank, previous polling has shown that in places with a mayor, 57 per cent of residents could name him or her.
To date there have been 41 referendums on whether to establish an elected mayor in English local authorities, with 14 votes in favour and 27 against. Stoke-on-Trent voted to abandon its mayor in 2008 six years after introducing the system, and Doncaster, which voted to install a mayor in 2001, is currently considering reverting back to the council “leader and cabinet” model.
This article first appeared in issue no.921 of The Big Issue in the North.