Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Case for Elected Mayors

Isn’t it about time people knew who was running their towns and cities?
If directly elected mayors achieve anything, it will surely be to make local government, and the people who run it, more visible, and therefore more answerable. It will catapult regional politics from something that takes place, away from the public gaze, in grand town hall buildings, with its elections, won on slim majorities in tiny constituencies with small turnouts, to something more tangible, recognisable, and acceptable.
It will help inject some much needed razzmatazz into local democracy. Mayors will no longer be ceremonial posts complete with gold chains and giant scissors, but ones with bite; someone who can project their city onto the world stage, and away from the parochial confines of their local area.
In its desire to continue what Labour set in motion, the coalition government has outlined its plans for elected mayors in 11 cities in England, if approved in referendums over the course of the next couple of years.
There are several reasons for hoping that each and every city responds with a resounding yes.
According to the Institute for Government (IFG), an independent think tank leading the way in championing the yes vote, the economic benefits are too obvious to ignore:
Time and again, history shows that it is cities with strong and effective civic leadership that are well placed to make the most of local economic assets and compete better in a global economy. And mayors create an opportunity to have exactly this type of strong and effective leadership.”

The IFG points to previous studies which have shown that economic growth in England’s cities has been ‘highly uneven,’ partly due to central government’s insistence in implementing ‘catch-all policies.’
A mayoral model would offer cities the chance to ‘deliver more tailored policies that take account of their specific needs.’
Improving private sector performance would be one area to address. Creating a business friendly environment where cities focus on developing transport, planning and skills policies, is one of the key recommendations made in the IFG’s Big Shot or Long Shot, a report released earlier this year, evaluating the government’s Localism Bill.
Its director, Lord Adonis, argued, in a visit to Bristol, one of the cities due to vote next year, that an elected mayor would help sort out Bristol’s chronic transport problems. Loathing the city’s bus network is an issue guaranteed to unite Bristolians. Having spent several years living there, I can vouch (and concur) for their anger.
A visible mayor, with strong name-recognition, and a personality to match, is enticing. A poll conducted by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) found that after 12-18 months in areas that have already plumped for elected mayors, 57% of people could identify them, compared to only 25% who could identify their council leaders.
Those who value local democracy should be even more concerned by a survey carried out ahead of this year’s local elections which found that most people couldn’t name a single one of their councillors, and were deeply dissatisfied with the work he/she was doing, whoever he/she might be.
Contrary to what was alluded to on the political blog Left Futures last week, independent-minded mayors, free from the shackles and constraints of party politics, are something which should be embraced. And even being affiliated doesn’t necessarily result in blind party loyalty: Ken Livingstone being the obvious example, but also Michael Bloomberg in New York.
If elected mayors are able to re-energise local government, pique people’s interest, and most importantly, generate a greater (domestic and international) attraction to our cities, then they have to be a good thing.
My only concern, and a large one at that, is that the government’s plans are too timid, and shy away from granting powers that the London mayors have been afforded.
The Economist optimistically predicts that: “mayors will surely acquire more powers as people get used to them.” But, notes that: “...it will not be easy to persuade people to vote for a vague promise of civic reorganisation, without the powers to match.”

This article was first published by Left Futures on Monday 28 November 2011

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