The difference a Mayor makes?

DSCN0159With all this talk about devolution and the centralised power of Westminster, it got me thinking about cities and city regions, and about the role of directly elected Mayors and the difference they could make to this agenda. If there is any chance of greater devolution to the local level in England, at the city or city region level, then is Mayoral governance an effective form of leadership to take on this new, more powerful role? As it happens I spent a couple of days last week at the Policy & Politics Annual Conference* where I attended three separate sessions on “what difference do directly elected mayors make?” as well as several plenary sessions about leadership and collaborative governance – critical ingredients for successful mayoral leadership perhaps? I wrote up each of the plenaries for the Policy & Politics blog – take a look if you want to know what all these academics were talking about!

I also recently attended a debate organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas about ‘leading the green city’ which I wrote up for Bristol 24-7. The critical point from that discussion about leadership suggests that with the potential for more power to be vested in one individual at the centre of City Hall (the Mayor), there comes a responsibility to share that power with local communities.  A potentially important lesson for all areas embarking on new forms of city governance?

The academic debate about directly elected mayors is interesting, it starts from the premise that this new model of urban governance provides more visible leadership, can better handle the complexity of local government, partnership working, and collaboration. It also accepts that there is little evidence to prove that this is the case from either the UK experience or from abroad. So does having a directly elected mayor really make a difference and is it a positive difference? I don’t intend to recount all of the discussion and presentations from the two day conference, but I just thought I’d pick out a few issues that struck me as important and where there is still so much to learn about this new form of local governance and the impact it has on decision making, collaboration and leadership. This becomes even more important if there are moves for greater devolution of power to the local level, we need to be confident that the model works and can handle this extra responsibility in the right way.

Whilst there seems to be little doubt that having an elected mayor provides for a more visible leadership role and there is better clarity over who is actually making the key decisions, there are equally some key questions raised by this new model in terms of the operation of the local council, local politicians and local communities. One of the issues raised during the conference discussion was about the role of scrutiny and whether or not this is being carried out effectively where there are elected mayors. It struck me that this is part of a wider debate that goes back to the Local Government Act 2000 where proposals to move from the old committee system to new models of local government were first introduced. The model most popularly adopted was that of cabinet and scrutiny, where a cabinet was formed (normally from the majority party) to take decisions and the rest of the councillors were organised around a series of scrutiny commissions to hold cabinet members to account.

What this new system did was remove policy development from the role of ordinary councillors, it created a 2-tier/class system of councillors, and left many wondering what their role was to be. Where in the past backbenchers might well have led on topics of interest to them and have played a key role to play at committee meetings, now they were told to focus on representing their constituents and providing some scrutiny to those now responsible for taking decisions. I was a councillor at the time of this change and it was a challenging and difficult time for many of us. I didn’t seek to become a cabinet member because I had a full-time job and didn’t think I could do both justice. So I went from committee chair to scrutiny member – quite a tricky transition for me and one I didn’t particularly enjoy, and I certainly wasn’t alone in that. My reason for going over old ground and history is that I don’t think the problems associated with lack of scrutiny of Mayoral decisions is anything new, it’s not just down to the mayoral system. The problem of scrutiny has been there ever since it was first introduced, when no one quite knew how to deal with it and where councillors and officers alike struggled with the concept and how to make it work – I wrote about this a while back in a blog suggesting we should bring back the committee system because actually it worked quite well! I think the same problems persist now, scrutiny in Bristol is not well developed, it never has been. I don’t know if it works better elsewhere, but there seems a real gap between the original intentions of this change of approach to governance and the reality of how it works on the ground.

What we have instead in places like Bristol, even before we had a Mayor, is a group of councillors who wonder quite what their role is beyond local representation. It seems to increase the oppositional nature of local politics and bring out the worst in many. The new model of directly elected mayor certainly exacerbates this process, particularly where the mayor is an independent with no reference back to a specific party group. The decision making power is vested in one person, and in Bristol that means the role of the majority of the other 70 councillors has changed even more, to one of local representation and trying to hold the mayor to account. But what does scrutiny actually mean and how does it work, can it be effective when the Mayor can choose to ignore it, and are councillors well equipped to deal with it – I have my doubts, same as I did back on 2000 when the initial changes were made. So there’s certainly an interesting academic debate to be had about the changing role of local councillors and how new models of local governance can work most effectively for everyone involved – the mayor, the councillors, the officers, the community. But nothing I’ve come across so far really answers those questions, that’s not to say the research doesn’t exist, just that I haven’t found it yet!

Like many of my blogs this started as a discussion about one thing and ended up as another – my approach to discipline in writing seems to be lacking. I started thinking about the difference mayors make and ended up talking about the need to think carefully about the role of councillors and scrutiny. It’s all part of the same discussion and there’s so much more to say, but I’ll leave that for another time.

*Note – if you want to know more about the discussion at the Policy & Politics Conference, Prof Alex Marsh & Dr David Sweeting talk about the contributions on directly elected mayors in this podcast – Talking Mayors

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10 thoughts on “The difference a Mayor makes?

  1. Thanks for this. It’s the first thing I have read on the general topic so far that is simultaneously self-reflective, thoughtfully undecided and well-informed. I suppose that most practical people simply want a transparent and well-understood system of government so that specific interests and ideas can be channeled to best effect. Who can fix my street and who’s in charge of the strategy that I need to influence for my cause?

    For Bristol there is no sign of consensus – undignified squabbling seems to be the norm. I was dismayed that the (albeit half-hearted) vote for to hold a Mayoral election was greeted with such national-party indifference. A well-supported Party ticket could have made much more progress than the relatively isolated independent Mayor has achieved so far. His small successes have been against disparate and mostly reactive (if not reactionary) special pleaders dressed up in various “neighbourhood” cloaks with no formal democratic mandate. Councillors seem to have attended a meeting or two and then voted at the behest of those louder voices who turned up on the day, without giving a lead and without asking for wider support. It’s very hard for anyone to know how to be heard when decisions are so easily changed (and then changed again later) because of below-the-radar lobbying.

    I’m also puzzled by the level at which a citizen’s voice is relevant. Bristol is such a small place (I moved here from West Yorkshire, centred on Leeds) that although I actually live in a flat in Clifton I am often more concerned about what is happening in Easton, North Somerset, Redland or Horfield where friends and family live or work, or other parts where I travel through, use health services and hope to encourage grand-children’s education. Bristol is a big town that should be able to govern itself if suitable arrangement scan be arranged with a) Whitehall and b) South West England. I would be delighted to lose any political affiliation with “Clifton Village” – a candidate for Parish Council status, but no more.

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    • Many thanks for your comment. It will be interesting to see how the main parties approach the next Mayoral election in 2016 given the experience they will have had of working with an Independent Mayor. I think there’s a serious debate needed in Bristol about neighbourhood councils, parish councils and community engagement – we have tended to play around the edges, taking the same approach as central government does with local government – distrust and hanging onto power, rather than delegation, devolution and participation. There are so many examples from elsewhere that we could learn from, of participatory budgeting, neighbourhood involvement and real engagement, that it always surprises me that we are so reluctant to do anything very different.

      I agree that Bristol is constrained by boundaries, the city region has always been an uncomfortable alliance of the 4 councils – Bristol needs to be able to extend its boundaries to encompass the urban area, with space for growth – then we might actually get some comprehensive, strategic decisions about how and where to grow our city region!

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  2. All in favour of power being devolved, but the record of participation by the public in anything local is not good. What % voted in the Mayoral election, local council elections, and we won’t even go to Neighbourhood Partnerships, and there lies the problem. We will always be ruled by those with no genuine mandate, even more so than often happens now, unless more people can be encouraged to participate not only in voting, but taking a far greater interest in what is happening in the area, otherwise it will continue to be a case that those who can organise a voice, will have far too much influence.

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    • That;s a very good point. Another set of people who operate at local level with no direct democratic mandate are the large companies like Tesco who (where I live , for one small example) tyrannise the street for long periods every day with very large vehicles on the road and lots of large and unwieldy trolleys unloading onto the pavement. Such very large companies can put pressure on local planning decisions in all sorts of unaccountable ways.

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    • You’re right Paul, but the vote in Scotland just shows how engaged people can be in politics and elections if the question they are voting on is important to them. If only we could get that kind of engagement in political processes we’d be part way to making them more worthwhile at least!

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  3. Yes, Scotland was exciting but how much of that was because of the closeness of the vote. Every vote did seem to count, which won’t happen on all issues. What was sad was how the possibility of a Yes vote, brought out the kind of promises we get at every election, which are not always kept. I sincerely hope in this case they will be!

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  4. Thanks for this thoughtful write-up.

    Your observation “What we have instead in places like Bristol, even before we had a Mayor, is a group of councillors who wonder quite what their role is beyond local representation. It seems to increase the oppositional nature of local politics and bring out the worst in many.” seemed spot-on.

    From the outside it looks like councillors of all parties are keen to find topics to rally the masses against the mayor (or council policy, which is pretty much regarded as one and the same nowadays), just so they are in the news every now and then and people will remember their name. Often those criticisms are so ill-informed that one must simply question their motives.

    Perhaps we should call Councillors “Ambassadors” instead, to make them go out and fight for Bristol in their respective parties and in government (where applicable).

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  5. Where in the post industrial world is there a working model of coherent government that has effective policy directed from units as small as a Ward or a Neighbourhood Forum? (not a rhetorical question) Most of our political problems have global origins with very wide consequences. Even a UK Parliament struggles to express preferences or act autonomously on things like health, education, environment, transport, defence, currency and welfare. What use is a Neighbourhood Forum beyond soaking up the precious time and emotional energy of the unrepresentative and unelected oddballs (like me) who sometimes turn up?

    Are we in that era when corporations and two or three global powers dictate all that really matters? Are we just left with squabbles over emptying the bins, protecting bus routes and standing up for more car parking?

    At my most recent attendance at a neighbourhood event a significant planning issue that no one present had a coherent or complete knowledge of was discussed, despite not appearing on the agenda, for an hour, mostly in terms of two trees that might or might not be cut down. A fully convened assembly or council or committee might at least have had an informed secretariat and a paper trail of agendas, minutes and possibly even a press reporter to encourage public scrutiny. I’m really not convinced by the enthusiasm for localism. I would rather see the power of Mayor and Cabinet increased and a stronger focus of existing sources of legitimacy – notably the main political parties (if they can survive) – on election and scrutiny of the Executive and on advocacy/liaison with Officers on behalf of constituents. As I said in my first comment I think it was a mistake for the national parties (especially Labour) to be so sniffy about the Mayoral concept.

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    • I can certainly see your point about localism and agree to some extent with power resting with Mayor and Cabinet, but this would indeed require much greater levels of scrutiny than appear to operate at the moment.

      There are examples of participatory budgeting, local engagement and models of local decision making at much more local level, but not in this country. I think the point is probably about engagement at whatever level and making engagement relevant to people.

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