Is local government falling out of love with mayors?

By Paul Wheeler | 21 August 2018
  • Paul Wheeler

Is local government falling out of love with mayors? Torbay recently announced the abolition of its directly-elected mayor as part of an economy drive and the newly-elected Mayor of Newham has pledged to hold a referendum on the continuation of the role. Mayoral pioneers in Hartlepool and Stoke-on-Trent have also bitten the dust.

There are success stories, most notably in Hackney and Lewisham, but since the election of Joe Anderson as Mayor of Liverpool in 2012, no other council has opted for a directly-elected mayor.

There is no doubt city region mayors in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Merseyside among others, have proved powerful advocates for their localities. Done well, metro mayors can encourage inward investment and lobby for powers and funding from central government. So what’s going on?

Part of the reason is the Government has become lukewarm in its support of mayors at all levels. George Osborne, as their biggest advocate, left politics (at least temporarily) and the current Government seems overwhelmed by its Brexit dilemmas.

Labour as an opposition party has never been comfortable with the prospect of powerful local leaders who could challenge the role and profile of MPs and ministers.

But a bigger element is that most councillors simply hate the idea of any form of directly-elected mayors. Understandable in terms of the internal politics of party groups, such resentment fails to comprehend the modern world and wider public sector. In most localities, the local council accounts for less than 20% of the total public expenditure. For district councils it is less than 5%. The role of a local political leader today is less about running the town hall and more about bringing together an array of public and private sector partners to improve the well-being of all its residents.

As experience in the rest of Europe shows, having a powerful public mandate assists this role mightily. Mayors with their own mandate are more flexible about adopting new ideas and processes, too.

So, if local government is to have a future, we need to be more confident in supporting directly-elected mayors at all levels. If we fail, we run the risk of local councils becoming the harmless pastime of old men, while the important decisions that influence the lives and future of their residents are made elsewhere, locally and nationally.

Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and writes on local politics

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