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This House would directly elect city mayors
This House would directly elect city mayors
In many towns and cities throughout the world, mayors are directly elected by the citizens, with varying but often considerable power to govern locally on their behalf. A town council, made up of separately elected representatives from different neighbourhoods (often called wards in English), usually balances this concentration of power in the hands of one man or woman. Until very recently, this model of local government was not used in the UK, where councillors make decisions through a committee system in which the leader of the majority party has the greatest power. In urban areas the councillors usually choose a mayor from among their number, usually on the basis of seniority rather than party affiliation; the mayor has no real power but is rather a ceremonial position. In 1997 the Labour party manifesto promised a directly elected mayor for London, and perhaps elsewhere, if the citizens there wanted one. A referendum in London was passed by a large majority, and Ken Livingstone, a left-winger who left the Labour Party to run as an independent, beat the candidates of the main parties to gain office in 2000. Since then local referendums on the issue have been held in some 37 English areas, but only in 12 towns did the citizens vote to create a directly elected mayor - the most recent being Tower Hamlets in 2010.
Since coming into power in 2010 the Conservative party under David Cameron is also promoting Mayor’s as a way of encouraging democratic engagement and decentralisation and is promising some new powers. There are as yet few specifics and the government expects that the new Mayors will themselves put proposals to central government setting out what powers they would like. The big change brought forward by Cameron has been to have a ‘cabinet of Mayors’ that will meet at least twice a year with the Prime Minister as Chairman this will allow Mayors the opportunity to lobby for their policies and the necessary funding.
On May 3rd 2012 as well as mayoral elections in London there will be elections in two other cities; Liverpool and Salford and referendums on whether to have mayors in a further ten cities; Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.
|Points For||Points Against|
|Electing a Mayor will revitalise local democracy||Mayors would result in too much centralisation of power.|
|Mayors would be more accountable than a council||Directly elected mayors provide opportunities for populists.|
|Elected Mayors would attract the best candidates to run for office.||Mayors will come at a cost|
|Mayors would raise the profile of the city they represent||Mayors could split economic regions|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
Electing a Mayor will revitalise local democracy
An elected mayor would revitalise local democracy. At present many people have no idea who their local councillors are, or who leads their council, perhaps because collective decision-making is generally unexciting. It is not surprising then that turnout is only around 30% and in some urban areas in Britain fewer than 1 in 4 adults bother to vote in local elections – the worst turnout in the EU. An elected mayor would act as a focus for local people, both symbolically and as someone with real power to improve their lives. Local elections would gain more coverage and more people’s attention as they are voting for one recognisable figure rather than a number of councillors. This in turn would turn attention to local democracy and increase turnout in elections.
Directly elected mayors would do little to renew local democracy. In the past, councils in the UK used to have a great deal of power, controlling schools, housing and local utilities, and setting budgets and raising revenues more or less as they wished. Since 1979 these powers have been greatly reduced with power increasingly centralised in Whitehall, which also greatly limits councils’ financial freedom so that local taxes bear little relation to local expenditure. Not surprisingly, as the real decision-making power of local councils has diminished, so has the proportion of citizens who think it is worth voting for them. There is no reason to think that people will flock in greater numbers to vote for a mayor who may well end up with similar restrictions placed upon them.
Mayors would be more accountable than a council
Electing mayors would improve accountability in local government. A Mayor would have a bigger mandate, which could be up to 500,000 votes compared to 5,000 for individual councillors making them more directly accountable to the city’s electorate.  They are also more visible; 57% of people could name their mayor when they had one compared to only 8% being able to name their council leader and so they are more likely to be held to account for their individual policies. By comparison where there are not mayors an elaborate and confusing series of committees make decisions in most areas, making it easy for individual councillors or parties to dodge responsibility for unpopular decisions or failed policies. Bristol is a good example of this with wobbly coalitions resulting from backroom deals and constantly shifting politics; the council changed hands seven times in the ten years to 2012. Placing this power in the hands of an elected mayor would streamline decision-making and increase accountability. A mayor who failed to improve local services or in other ways implement their campaign promises would have little chance of re-election.
 Sims, Sam, ‘Electing mayors for more English cities would increase local democratic accountability and widen political participation. But the government must grant them real power and freedom’, blogs.lse.ac.uk, 7 October 2011.
An elected mayor would give the appearance of accountability, but at the risk of stifling democratic debate. At present policies are debated by council committees, and then by the full council, which represents a wide spectrum of views and interests; the public and media can usually attend these meetings, so overall proposals have to survive detailed examination. Focusing power in the hands of one person risks policy mistakes, ignores the interests of minorities, and allows for the possibility of corruption, especially if they are in office for four years and cannot be removed by vote of the council. Ken Livingstone, who was Mayor of London for eight years, argues “It’s easy to avoid serious scrutiny – Boris has had six press conferences in four years. When you come to see how the assembly gets to question him once a month that’s not the same as a detailed scrutiny by a council committee.” Greater accountability could instead be achieved by use of citizens’ juries to consider particular local issues, and local referenda on issues such as the level of council tax.
Elected Mayors would attract the best candidates to run for office.
Elected mayors would allow talented individuals to make a difference, regardless of their party affiliation. The present system rewards long-serving and loyal party hacks rather than innovative managers, thinkers and leaders; polls show that the public think councillors put party politics above the needs of their community. Those who are most talented who are elected are simply using the council as a stepping stone for running for national office. If mayors were directly elected, local parties would have to find dynamic candidates with a proven ability to solve problems and manage big organisations, or risk such candidates running and winning as independents. This has already been shown to be the case in London where Ken Livingstone (who initially became Mayor as an independent) and Boris Johnson, both established and well known politicians, ran for Mayor, and in Birmingham where Lam Byrne, formally no.2 at the treasury, has expressed an interest in running.
Talented individuals with a proven track record are unlikely to seek mayoral office unless local government is given much greater autonomy by central government. With the powers for each city not yet clear many may not be willing to take the risk. The reason for the lack of talent in councils is therefore not because they work as a body rather than one prominent individual but that councils themselves have too little power. Regardless of the system of election, if real power is offered, real leaders will be attracted by the prospect of wielding it and will rise to prominence.Improve this
Mayors would raise the profile of the city they represent
Elected mayors would speak on behalf of their communities, raising the profile of their town or city nationally and internationally. This could be particularly valuable when negotiating with businesses, helping to draw valuable investment into their area and overcoming bureaucratic hurdles that typically hinder development. Chambers of commerce in cities that are holding referendums believe a figurehead will provide a focal point for business relations and a single point of contact that champions the city’s interests. In addition, mayors would give local government in general a higher profile after years of increasing centralisation by national government. Acting collectively, and through the change in attitudes their higher media profile would generate, mayors would be able to draw power away from the centre once again and bring it closer to the people.
Electing a maverick candidate could do the image of a town or city a great deal of harm rather than good. Cities such as Birmingham have already been highly successful at attracting inward investment under the present system of local government. In any case, the major bureaucratic constraints on investment relate to issues of subsidy and tax-breaks, which are outlawed by the EU, and to national taxation and planning policies, set in Whitehall, none of which will be affected by an elected mayor.Improve this
Mayors would result in too much centralisation of power.
An elected mayor would have too much power, making the prospect of its misuse alarming. If the mayor has the power to choose their own cabinet of councillors, this could be as small as three members, all of whom could be sacked at will for opposing the wishes of the mayor. If the mayor has the right to delegate powers to his cabinet members, they equally have the authority to reserve all the real powers to themselves. And those councillors outside the cabinet would have little to do other than to monitor broken streetlights and the standard of refuse collection in their ward. Why would talented and ambitious people stand for council in these circumstances, and what would the absence of such people do for the council’s oversight of the mayor?Improve this
Electing a mayor would not concentrate power too much in the hands of one individual. Although models of local government vary, mayors usually have to pick a cabinet from among the elected councillors and to seek approval for their policies and budget from the whole elected council. A mayor would thus have to persuade and build a consensus in order to govern effectively. This is a more transparent approach to local decision making than the present one, and should therefore be free from the accusations of corruption and nepotism that have been levied at the old system.Improve this
Directly elected mayors provide opportunities for populists.
The position of elected mayor is likely to attract populist and maverick candidates, who will seek to capitalise on the unpopularity of party politics with “single issue sloganising, glib promises and headline grabbing” (Ken Walker, Labour leader of Middlesbrough council). A good example is Paul Massey, who has had 25 convictions in the past and yet is running to be Mayor of Salford and could even have a chance of winning. In office such candidates are likely to alienate elected councillors and other crucial local partners, to disappoint voters as their promises run up against the actual limitations of their power, and to neglect many aspects of local government in favour of their own pet issue. This danger is even greater if a far-right candidate were to exploit local concerns about immigration and asylum-seekers to inflame racial tensions. Again Lutfur Rahman of Tower Hamlets is a good example of how this could happen, he has links to a Muslim extremist group, and only needed a mere 23,000 votes, 13% of the electorate because there was such low turnout.
If the position of Mayor is given powers then it will attract a wide range of candidates, which may include extremists. However these candidates are no more likely to win than they would be in any other election. As with any other election voters are likely to vote for centrist candidates that have strong manifestos and good ideas about how to solve the city’s problems.Improve this
Mayors will come at a cost
Having Mayors is costly. First of all there is the referendum and the election of the Mayor himself which Bristol council has said could cost up to £400,000. This is then followed by the extra administrative cost created by having a Mayor who will of course have to have deputies, staff, offices, cars and a publicity budget, which could mean up to £3 million a year. This is money that at a time where councils are facing budget cuts could be better spent on shoring up the services councils provide.
While there may be some extra costs to having a mayor this is likely to be marginal and overall costs may well fall, as Prime Minister Cameron argues “if you end up with a mayor, you’ll actually save money, because mayors can bang heads together, get rid of bureaucracy, and right now, any mayor worth their salt will be trying to get bills down.” There are many layers of funding which create needless overlaps and administration; in Leicester it is estimated for economic development it costs £135 million in overheads to spend £176 million on projects, an inefficiency the new mayor would be in a good position to get to grips with.
Mayors could split economic regions
The value of a mayor is dependent upon that mayor having a distinct area of control. However often this area is set too small. Cities are the hubs for neighbouring towns and countryside as well as the inner city. This could then end up splitting up economic regions. Birmingham and Coventry are very close to each other but at some point in the future could potentially have different city mayors. There would then be confusion; who runs regional transport policy or the West Midlands police that affects both cities?
Coordinating between a few mayors in a region is considerably easier than between hundreds of councillors. The whole point of devolving power is to let local people have more influence and decide for themselves. Neighbouring areas could eventually have referendums to become part of the area controlled by the mayor if it is seen as being necessary just as they would to get a mayor of their own.Improve this
BBC News, ‘Labour’s Liam Byrne wants to run for Birmingham mayor’, 30 March 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17554130
Carter, Andrew, ‘Mayors and Economic Growth’, in Tom Gash and Sam Sims eds., What can elected mayors do for our cities? Institute for Government, 2012, pp.37-42, p.42 http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/publication_mayors_and_cities_signed_off.pdf
Conservatives, ‘Local Government’, http://www.conservatives.com/policy/where_we_stand/local_government.aspx
Gash, Tom, ‘A turning point for England’s big cities’, Institute for Government, 29 March 2012, http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/4281/a-turning-point-for-england%E2%80%99s-big-cities/
Gilligan, Andrew, ;The town hall dictator taking over near you’, The Telegraph, 22 April 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/andrew-gilligan/9218309/The-town-hall-dictator-taking-over-near-you.html
Hetherington, Peter, ‘Vote for US-style mayors exposes deep Labour rifts’, The Guardian, 20 October 2001, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2001/oct/20/politics.localgovernment
ITV News, ‘Bristol mayor will save money, says Prime Minister’, A Mayor for Bristol, 24, April 2012, http://www.bristolmayor.org/2012/04/24/itv-news-the-prime-minister-in-bristol/
McCabe, Steve, ‘An executive mayor – can we afford it?, Birmingham Mail, 17 April 2012, http://www.birminghammail.net/news/birmingham-news/2012/04/17/birmingham-elected-mayor-vote-the-arguments-for-and-against-97319-30777536/2/
Moss, Richard, ‘PM tempts big city voters with Cabinet of Mayors offer’, BBC News, 29 March 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-17554952
Parry, Keith, ‘Local government: timeline from 1979’, House of Commons Library, 10 January 2008, www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN02976.pdf
Shakespeare, Tom, ‘For Good Measure Devolving Accountability for Performance and Assessment to Local Areas’, Localis, 2010, p.17 http://www.localis.org.uk/images/articles/Localis_For%20Good%20Measure_WEB.pdf
Sims, Sam, ‘Electing mayors for more English cities would increase local democratic accountability and widen political participation. But the government must grant them real power and freedom’, blogs.lse.ac.uk, 7 October 2011, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/2011/10/07/elected-mayors-local-democracy/
The Economist, ‘Why elected mayors matter’, 19 April 2012, http://www.economist.com/blogs/bagehot/2012/04/elected-mayors
Waterson, James, ‘Ken: Mayor has too much power for one person’, City A.M., 18 April 2012, http://www.cityam.com/latest-news/ken-mayor-has-too-much-power-one-person
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