More people should have the right to elect their local leader, argues Prof Michael Kenny, of the IPPR think-tank. (Page 14 LGA First Magazine Issue 328 May 2008)
The idea of having more elected mayors in England seems to have pushed its way back up the political agenda. Even before the ‘Boris and Ken show’, there were signs that momentum was emerging in all the main parties behind the idea of introducing more mayors into England’s cities. The government’s forthcoming white paper will be watched with interest by supporters and detractors of elected mayors alike. Will they seize the initiative and give more people the right to elect their local leader?
This is certainly what I and colleagues at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) have urged government to do in a report published just before the London election. Drawing on the performance of the 13 mayors who have been in post in England, we found that the introduction of this office has nearly always coincided with an improvement in councils’ performance.
Hackney is perhaps the most dramatic example of a turnaround in fortunes under their elected mayor Jules Pipe (pictured). Every mayoral authority has either consolidated or improved its score in the comprehensive performance assessment. Elected mayors are better known to their electorates than council leaders, have produced a series of innovative and eyecatching policies (from congestion charging in London to crime reduction in the North East), and have proved highly responsive to the priorities of local people. Elected leaders tend to become beacons for the places they represent, and are more focused upon facilitating partnerships and balancing different interests than pursuing narrow party interests.
The worry that elected mayors will turn out to be celebrities or mavericks is not born out by the experience of those who have been in post. Even Stuart Drummond in Hartlepool – elected as H’Angus the monkey – threw away his costume after his election, learned the ways of local government and has helped his authority climb the CPA tables. In London, Boris won in part because of real policy differences between him and Ken Livingstone, but also because he realised he needed to downplay his celebrity image in order to compete.
The real democratic question that needs to be asked about elected mayors is why so few? When will we have a government that has the courage to steer away from the local referendum device that has played into the hands of sceptical councillors and proved a major obstacle to the introduction of more directly elected local government leaders?
LGA chairman Sir Simon Milton is right to argue that people are more likely to vote in local elections if greater powers are given to town halls. What he and others need to grasp is that capable and responsive elected mayors are an important means of enabling central government to feel able to delegate meaningful responsibilities in this way.
Michael Kenny is a professor of politics at Sheffield university and a visiting research fellow at the IPPR