With 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