Having a mayor?

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Voters in English cities have by and large rejected the mayoral model, but mayors might still be the best answer for the governance of city regions

It’s not been a great day for the coalition so far. In addition to council losses, five of six cities where votes have been counted at the time of writing have rejected the opportunity to adopt an elected mayor. David Cameron came out in support of ‘a Boris for every city’ but that’s not what he’s got.

In a sense it’s no surprise that things aren’t turning out well for pro-mayor campaigners. Institute for Government research in February showed that there was some underlying support for mayors across the country (37% wanted them vs 25% who didn’t) but 38% of the electorate either didn’t know or didn’t care whether they preferred the mayoral model. Apathy is compounded by three factors: the refusal of government to be clear about the precise additional powers mayors would be given; campaigning by local councillors who mobilised party machines to resist changes that would mean less power for them; and a general disillusionment that led to sympathy for the No campaigners’ line that another politician – and particularly a powerful one – could surely not be a good thing.

The results are not good news for government effectiveness according to the views of the leading think-tanks who contributed to a compilation of essays on the benefits of mayoral governance in March. But the results don’t yet mark total failure in the government’s mayoral and decentralisation agendas. Bristol getting a mayor is an important step. Because there is no dominant party in the city and a third of councillors up for election every year, instability in political leadership there was becoming intolerable – a staggering 11 changes of leadership in 10 years! Doncaster also voted to keep its mayoral model. Significantly, rejections have so far generally been by narrow margins and the big prize of Birmingham is, of course, yet to provide a verdict. What’s more, we can’t forget that this Parliament has also seen Liverpool, Leicester and Salford switch to the mayoral system without a referendum.

It’s time, however, for those who see local government as broken and decentralisation as a route to more effective government engaged electorate to take stock. What are the other options on the table?

The most promising looks like the city-region model for local governance. Greater Manchester has been an early mover here, creating a ‘combined authority’ with a statutory basis that can receive and spend funds on behalf of the whole city and surrounding areas. City-regions are better aligned to the underlying nature of the local economy meaning policy making can better support growth. And the government has made it clear that this model will be looked on favourably as somewhere that is safe to pass money to – though their confidence in Manchester may also have something to do with the charisma of local leaders Sir Richard Lees and Sir Howard Bernstein. West Yorkshire authorities are currently in the processes of setting up their own combined authority, after ironing out the usual relationship difficulties.

The problem with this model of governance, however, is that it may not do enough to reassure central government that there is a visible local figure who will take the flak for mistakes if power is devolved. An Institute for Government poll in February showed that only 8% of people know the name of their council leader: an astounding statistic when compared with the visibility of a Ken or a Boris. What’s more, the combined authority might not feel like that democratic to voters. Decisions in the combined authority can be strongly influenced by someone you never had the chance to vote for – a reason why defenders of now dismantled, old-style regional government were few and far between.

This means that a visible, accountable leader will be needed for the new city-region tier of English government – which is, of course, the system we currently have in Greater London. So mayors may yet be the answer. The question is, however, whether after these results government will again want to risk asking the electorate about constitutional affairs they appear to show little interest in?

Tom Gash is programme director at the Institute for Government

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