Will new elected mayors have the necessary powers to succeed?

As the ballot boxes open tomorrow for mayoral referendums in ten of the UK’s biggest cities, it seems a good time to consider the role of elected mayors and whether they can help drive local growth.

In theory, elected mayors are a good idea. They can unify fragmented local government structures, give business a single point of contact and take a strategic view across a city region. Yet there are significant factors which must be addressed if this next generation of elected mayors are to have the powers and scope they need to succeed. If unchanged from the current model, the result could be de-stabilising at a time when local authorities are already struggling with massive spending cuts.

In 2009 the Conservatives published, Control Shift: Returning power to local communities, which signalled their intention to legislate to hold referendums in the 12 largest cities outside London.

The cities were: Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Wakefield, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Leicester already has an elected mayor and Liverpool decided by a council resolution to have a mayoral form of government and hold a mayoral election which takes place today alongside the referendums in the remaining 10 cities.

The drive for elected mayors is not, of course, entirely new. Since the adoption of the Local Government Act 2000, any English local authority, or five per cent of its electorate, can require a referendum to be held on whether to have an elected mayor. With this in mind, it seems at odds with the localism agenda for government to compel local authorities to hold these referendums.

At the moment mayoral powers are exactly the same as those available for indirectly-elected council leaders. The existing powers are as follows:

  • A mayor is elected for a four year period; however, indirectly-elected council leaders may also now have a four year term of office;
  • Mayors decide on the size of the cabinet, appoint cabinet members and decide how, and to what extent, executive functions may be delegated. These executive powers can be held by council leaders as well;
  • Mayors set the budget and formulate major policy framework plans, but amendment or rejection of the proposals requires a two-thirds majority of the council (as do council executives in non-mayoral systems).

Those in favour of elected mayors often stress the importance of ‘soft’ powers conferred on them by the electorate.  Being directly elected, they have a mandate from the people which enables them to influence, persuade and co-ordinate on a wider scale. Mayoral systems are said to increase turnout, visibility, accountability, and lead to more effective local decision making.

At the moment it is still unclear what powers elected mayors can be expected to have, and without genuine powers it is difficult to see how they will make any real impact.

There is the risk that a mayoral model based on a single local authority rather than a city could destabilise already fragile sub-regional working arrangements.  For elected mayors to be able to make a difference and influence economic growth they need to work across real functional economic areas and influence the policy areas that matter for economic growth. These include dealing with skills, employment, transport, housing and infrastructure and can only be dealt with effectively at the right spatial level. Whilst the devolution of many of these levers is being considered via the City Deals, we know from previous experience that Whitehall is not good at letting go. This is recognised by the minister for cities, Greg Clark, who admitted that there will be ‘plenty of antagonism’ in Whitehall to the prospect of devolving more powers.

Further, the localism drive is at odds with the direction of many of the policy announcements that have happened since the coalition government came to power. In 2010 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills removed skills strategy setting powers (Section 4 powers) from Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and London. The closure of the RDAs has seen most functions centralised rather than transferred to Local Enterprise Partnerships – who remain unfunded. And the coalition reform agenda is in many cases seeking to devolve down to the level of individual institutions rather than to local government, e.g. to GP commissioning, schools, and further education establishments.

Without getting these structural factors right, there is a danger that the new wave of elected mayors won’t have the powers and scope they need to succeed. And the public remains to be convinced, with some commentators predicting low turnouts in many cities.

So, even if most cities vote ‘yes’ to the new wave of elected mayors, their likely success will remain open to question.


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