The case for elected mayors. By Jonathan Trollope
On May 3rd voters will go to the polls in ten of England’s cities to decide whether they want to have a directly elected mayor. The idea has been heavily championed by David Cameron over the last few weeks; making it a key part of his strategy for devolving power away from Whitehall and allowing local people to have more of a say in how they are governed. In putting the case forward for elected mayors The Prime Minister’s argued that “Britain stands on the brink of exciting democratic change…let’s be clear what this moment means. It’s not some trivial re-structuring or fiddling about.”(1) Indeed it is not just the replacement of the existing city council system with a mayor that is being put forward. The government’s plans also include a major restructuring in the way local government operates with the establishment of a ‘Cabinet of Mayors’ one of the key proposals. This would see elected mayors from the major English cities meeting twice a year in London with the PM giving them the opportunity to discuss and swap ideas/initiatives as well having direct access to government ministers and departments to discuss issues such as funding. There are also proposals, unconfirmed in nature at present, which will see greater devolved powers granted to the mayor’s office in key areas.
One of the main arguments put forward for having a directly elected mayor is the claim it will be more democratic and efficient than the present local council system. Simon Jenkins argues the adoption of elected mayors is a “crucial step to pluralising British democracy.”(2) He claims having mayors will help reduce bureaucracy levels by abolishing the “shadowy civic mafia” (3) of local councils. This will allow local services to benefit from improved efficiency as a result. The case can certainly be made for mayoral elections providing a more direct form of democracy than the current system with higher turnout levels also likely in comparison to local council elections. Another argument for the ‘Yes’ campaign is that a mayoral system will improve accountability with as citizens able to recognize one single figure as representing them with the option to kick them out of office; instead of the often confusing schedule of staggered city council elections currently in place.
Turning to my city of Bristol there are a number of benefits which can be seen from having an elected mayor. There have been six (soon to be seven) different leaders of Bristol City Council in the last ten years with frequent quarrels and changes in party representation within the council resulting in a lack of clear leadership, coherence and direction where things all too often don’t get done. Bristol’s model – shared by many other cities – of an elected city council and a ceremonial Lord Mayor represents the worst of both worlds and is incompatible with the needs of a major city in the 21st century. An elected mayor could therefore provide an important point of stability which will aid economic growth in the city and encourage new business to move to the area. A mayor could also become a key figure representing their city on the national and international stage – something which is badly needed in Bristol. They could act as a positive unifying force providing a point of contact for the disparate communities that make up the city. Finally in a time when faith in our politicians and civic engagement is at an all-time low a change like this could have the effect of re-engaging people.
Looking at the experience of London since it introduced an elected mayor in 2000 I think it would be fair to say that it has proved a largely positive development on balance. It has helped London remain firmly on the world map and re-vitalised civic life in the capital. More cash has been made available in the key areas of policing and transport and progress has been made in addressing some of the city’s most pressing issues. Policies such as the congestion charge, free bikes and the introduction of The Oyster Card are all examples of initiatives drawn up by the Mayor’s office which may not have otherwise been implemented
Some have criticised these referendums as a ‘waste of money’ but anything that gives citizens a chance to have a greater say in how they are governed and makes them think about local politics is surely a good thing. Overall while it seems unlikely that directly elected mayors will represent a new panacea for British democracy they may certainly help to address problems of inefficiency and bureaucracy which seem to dog many local city councils. They could also provide the strong leadership and representation on the bigger stage that cities such as Bristol have been sorely lacking. There are evidently a lot of ‘if’s and buts’ and certain pitfalls which should be avoided if the proposals are to work. The lack of clarity in terms of powers and accountability has not helped – as a result people will go in to the vote blind to an extent. While it is unusual for me to support one of the Prime Ministers ideas, on this occasion I applaud David Cameron for giving the public the chance to make a real choice. So, while it may well represent a bit of a gamble, I would encourage voters to take a punt on May 3rd and vote ‘Yes’ in the Mayoral referendums.
(1) ‘David Cameron calls on city dwellers to vote yes in mayoral referendums’ by Nicholas Watt – http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/apr/23/david-cameron-vote-yes-mayoral-referendums?INTCMP=SRCH
(2, 3) ‘Elected mayors will destroy our shadowy civic mafias’ by Simon Jenkins - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/17/mayors-destroy-civic-mafias?INTCMP=SRCH