Why elected mayors won’t fix it

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Elected mayors are being talked up as the future for local communities. But ahead of the May 3 referendums, it’s worth looking at some of the downsides

The impact of an elected mayoral system is totally unknowable and that is precisely the problem. It concentrates enormous authority and control in the hands of one individual and much depends on the quality and personality of that individual. Whoever elects one is buying a ‘pig in a poke’

To manage the complexity of a large council as a single individual you need someone with the wisdom of Solomon. Unfortunately those sort of people, by definition, do not tend to stand. The risk is, therefore, that the electorate will end up with someone with a very large ego, little sensitivity and insufficient patience and diplomacy to get things done. Those sort of people do tend to stand.

So there is an in-built problem from the beginning. The second endemic problem is that the balance of power within an authority is upset. Instead of a two-way relationship between the leader and the chief executive, there is a three-way relationship between elected mayor, the chief executive and the leader/chair of the ruling group – and without the checks and balances built into the current system. It is the difference between balancing a see saw with two points and a triangle with three: a far more difficult exercise.

The third built-in problem is the relationship with other elected councillors. Their role, already diminished under the scrutiny system which councils now subscribe to, is reduced further. There is an expectation by the public that the all-powerful mayor can ‘fix it’ what ever ’it’ is, Therefore the recourse is to the mayor and not the ward councillor, when often it is the ward councillor who has most knowledge and is better placed to take up the issue. This creates enormous resentment.

To compound the problem, if it all goes wrong, you can’t ‘get rid’ of it – simply because the mayor responds, not to the council, but to the electorate every four years.  So you have stand-offs between the rest of the council and the mayor, a bit like that which so often afflicts Congress and the presidency in the US. This applies particularly at budget times when the horse trading is especially acute.

Then there is the cost. The referendum in Nottingham will cost £300,000, the elections in  2013 and 2017 will cost around £683,000. The salary of the mayor could be anything up to £115,000, whilst the current leaders’ salary is £44,000; then there is the increase in staffing costs – and any mayor will certainly want increased self-publicity.

Finally, hard decisions; there is a tendency to avoid them. Responding to the electorate directly, mayors often become populist, promising things they can’t deliver, and not doing things that are unpopular. You could say that of many politicians, but the tendency is accentuated under this system.

The mayor of Doncaster, for example, promised to get rid of equal opportunities and road humps. The first was illegal, the second undoable. Boris Johnson knows that a third run-way is needed for London Airport, yet he comes up with the impractical Boris Island as a diversion. In Nottingham, when the first line of the tram was built, it was initially very unpopular. Now it is great success. It was pushed through by collective responsibility. I doubt it would ever have been supported by an elected mayor.

In short, the elected mayor arrangement risks destabilising systems, undermining democracy and costing substantially, not only in direct expenditure but in conflict, time wasted, energy spent on introspection and self-aggrandisement (mostly male), as opposed to achievement. Where the arrangement has avoided problems there is no evidence that elected mayors have added great value to their area. Some have been reasonable, even good, but there is no dramatic improvement which may not otherwise have happened had they been leaders.

On the other hand, here is much evidence to show, as in Torbay, North Tyneside, Stoke, Doncaster, Hartlepool and Tower Hamlets that the system has created conflict and confusion. Of the 14 places in which elected mayors have been established there are six at least where there have been serious problems and this is being generous. It is a high rate of attrition.

We have been told that elected mayors are the future. However given their abolition in Stoke, and the movement in Doncaster and possibly North Tyneside and Torbay to abolish them, perhaps their post-future demise would be a more accurate prediction.

Graham Chapman is deputy leader of Nottingham City Council

3 comments on Why elected mayors won’t fix it

  1. Simon says:

    This is a good summary of the case against mayors, but as someone who is pragmatically in favour I feel the need to add some balance.

    The idea that anyone who stands as a mayor will probably be a hopeless populist is obviously not the whole truth. Are Steve Bullock, Robin Wales and Dorothy Thornhill people who lack for patience and diplomacy? Is Liam Byrne just a man with a big ego and zero sensitivity? These are serious politicians. I think we need to have a bit more faith in the voters to be able to distinguish between vain loudmouths and wise statespeople.

    I find the argument about the costs of a mayor unconvincing. If we care so much about the price of elections, why not go the whole hog and have fewer councillors or abolish election by thirds? Democracy costs money and in this case much of the price is being paid by central government.

    The idea that a mayor will cost more makes huge assumptions about the person elected. Mayor Soulsby in Leicester, for instance, has removed his chief executive and is offering low salaries for senior jobs. And of course you can get rid of a mayor you don’t like. You vote them out every four years, or you launch a recall petition as voters did in Stoke and Doncaster.

    The argument about hard decisions fails to tell the whole story. OK, Boris isn’t pushing for a new runway, but Ken used the mayoralty to take the hard decision to introduce congestion charging.

    The author is right to suggest that there is no evidence that a mayor did anything a leader couldn’t have done, but only because such evidence is impossible to provide. When a mayor is elected there is no counterfactual, so we can never know what might otherwise have happened.

    What we do know is that many of the first round of mayors did a pretty good job, often in very difficult circumstances (mayors were often, but not always, elected as a protest against previous political and economic failure). Between 2002-8 almost every mayoral authority improved its CPA score or maintained it at a high level, name recognition rose and CLG research found that public opinion of decision making in mayoral authorities improved faster than in leader and cabinet authorities.

    The schism here is between those who think that the best leadership emerges from collective decision making, and those who think direct democracy is better. The only way to settle it is to try both and see what works. I’m not one of those people who thinks that mayors will transform everything – but I hope we’ll see a few more of them so we can really test the idea in a couple of our great cities.

  2. Steven Boxall says:

    At last, someone has pointed out some of the possible downsides of powerful elected mayors. I have been telling people that we don’t have to look very far to find examples of powerful mayors using their power corruptly (some cities in the USA are/were, I understand, well known for it), so I have been at a loss to understand why no one else was pointing out that powerful elected mayors may not be the answer.

    In the same way no one seems to be pointing out the downsides and risks of Tax Increment Financing and highlighting the problems it has in the USA and Australia.

  3. Des McConaghy says:

    Jean Monnet once asked in the French Gaullist Assembly, “What type of democracy is it that despairs of all men except one”?! And this rhetorical question reminds me of a 1969 talk given by John Stringer at the Tavistock Institute: “One cannot fail to be struck by the persistence of the legal model in public affairs even when they are not concerned with law and order. It is as though we still wished to be ruled by a king sitting in his court, hearing the submissions of his subjects and granting them redress or favour. Development of a scientific approach to decision-making has had little impact”. Then, again, not too long after that, I recall being given tea in the House of Lords by Evelyn Sharp (the famous “Dame” in Crossman’s Diaries). This was some time after she had retired as the Ministry of Housing and Local Government’s Permanent Secretary. When we got around to the MHLG and the future of local government she was silent for a moment. Then she quietly pronounced, “I think that inevitably we shall move towards a modified prefectoral system”! It seems we are still on track!


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