As the twentieth century drew to a close local government was in a perilous state. According to White “For more than fifty years English local democracy has come under sustained attack from governments of every political complexion” (White 2004). This had produced excessive oversight from the national government in Westminster and local government that was effectively moribund and being driven by edict from the centre.
The status of local government in the year 2000 was almost identical to that which had existed 125 years earlier. Victorian local government approached the last quarter of the nineteenth century in a similarly depressed state to its modern counterpart. According to Simon Szreter, the Victorian town hall was, in most towns and cities “in an almost farcical state of low aspirations and low standards” (Szreter 2002).
"where once-proud corporations led by the town's leading men of affairs had put through great town improvements such as widening roads and building hospitals in the eighteenth century, municipal administration had now fallen into a mean state of bickering and 'do-nothingism'." (Szreter 2002).
The answer of the Gladstone government to the Victorian local civic lethargy was to re-vitalise the prestige of local government by encouraging civic activism. This led to the emergence of new local civic leaders, including the managing director of the West Midlands' biggest screw manufacturer (which ultimately became G.K.N.), Joseph Chamberlain, father of the future Conservative Prime Minster, Neville Chamberlain.
Joseph Chamberlain was elected mayor of Birmingham in 1875, for the third consecutive year, on the back his programme of ambitious municipal spending! Gladstone’s reforms were actually so successful that they produced a complete reversal of fortunes, with local government expenditure even outstripping that of central government. (Szreter 2002).
This persisted until the Labour government’s nationalisation programmes in the 1940s and 1950s began a return to central control. Ironically, nationalisation was what ultimately allowed the cycle of national vs local control to return to national dominance through the final destruction of local control by the privatisations of the Thatcher era.
"Nationalisation, by weakening the power of local government and by gathering together industries and services under central control, eased the path for privatisation when the political tables turned thirty years on." (White 2004).
Rejuvenation of local government
It was against this background in the late 1990s that the Blair Government was seeking a means of rejuvenating local government, with renewed local civic activism and increased civic pride. The government hit upon the concept of directly elected mayors as a means of reviving local democracy. According to a government consultation paper “Modernising local government”
"A mayor would be a highly visible figure. He or she would have been elected by the people rather than the council or party and would therefore focus attention outwards in the direction of the people rather than inwards towards fellow councillors. The mayor would be a strong political and community leader with whom the electorate could identify. Mayors will have to become well known to their electorate which could help increase interest in and understanding of local government." (Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 1998)
When the government’s proposals were translated into law, they actually gave local people the opportunity to have a real say in how local government was structured. Councils were made to undertake consultation with their residents over three types of alternative arrangements for their future council. The options were to have a directly elected mayor with a cabinet appointed by the mayor, a council leader appointed by the councillors with a cabinet appointed either by the council or the leader or a directly elected mayor and council manager (this last model was withdrawn in 2007).
An elected mayor is in post for four years and acts as the council’s political leader. This is a distinct and separate role from the current civic mayors, who change every twelve months and undertake a ceremonial role. Civic mayors are assumed to be non-political, although in reality it is unusual for the role to go outside the majority political party in a local authority.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that a directly elected mayor is an attractive proposition to between 55 and 75 per cent of the public (Market & Opinion Research International, 2008) but also that there is considerable confusion over the exact role and powers of an “executive” or directly elected mayor.
First elected mayors
A major change introduced by direct election is that a directly elected mayor need not be a councillor first. Anyone aged twenty-one years or older and satisfying certain residency requirements can stand as a candidate in a mayoral election.
This does rather open the door to “celebrity” and novelty candidates. Possibly the two most famous of these are Stuart Drummond, the “Monkey Mayor” in Hartlepool (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002) and “Robocop" Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough.
The election of Stuart Drummond in particular was heavily criticized by the political establishment. Simon Hughes MP, then the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, said on BBC Radio that Mr.Drummond's victory in Hartlepool highlighted the shortcomings in the system of directly elected mayors.
"We were against the idea of directly-elected mayors because we thought they allowed for gimmicks and superficial characters to succeed and we were clearly proved right." (Hughes 2002).
The monkey mascot's election success also lead Labour Party Chairman Charles Clarke, also speaking on BBC Radio, to admit the monkey mascot's success was "a serious issue" and that it may push the government into a rethink about the system of directly elected mayors. He further said,
"While there had been a positive mayoral result in Doncaster, where the Labour candidate won, the other end of it is the other guy elected in Hartlepool, the one in the monkey suit, who ridicules the whole system. Obviously we will have to weigh it all up ... but again like all these experiments, they are designed to encourage better ways of looking at local government and that is what we will continue to try to do." (Clarke 2002)
However, despite concerns about the electorate’s inability to vote for serious candidates, the mayoral programme was still felt by the Blair government to be the best way to meet its programme for “strong and prosperous communities” and to provide,
"transparent and accountable leadership which itself has important benefits. Such leadership firstly may provide a mechanism for regenerating interest in local politics. Secondly, a high profile local leader can potentially help create a more inclusive politics, providing an accessible focus point for businesses, the voluntary sector and interest groups, as well as voters." (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2006).
Despite central government’s support for the directly elected mayor model and the public interest generated by the election of individuals like the “Monkey Mayor” there were clear “No” votes rejecting the concept in vast majority of local authorities which held referenda on introducing the system. Since the post of elected mayor was created by the Blair government in the Local Government Act 2000 over 60 referenda have been held, resulting in the election of just 12 elected mayors, four of these being in London. (Hope and Wanduragala 2010).
The lack of public interest in a regenerated local government, via the elected mayor model, was even evident in the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Sedgefield. In a referendum in October 2001 the Sedgefield electorate voted 53% to 47% ((Turnout 33%) against the introduction of a directly elected mayor for Sedgefield District Council (BBC News 19 October 2001).
A review of the political progress of the elected mayors by Professor Colin Corpus concluded;
"The Blair government’s attempt to re-invigorate and refresh local political leadership, by introducing directly elected mayors, has resulted, by the way the mayoral model in England is currently configured, in little more than another route into the top local political post." (Corpus, 2009).
Continued Government support
However, despite the apparent failure of the elected mayoral system to catch the imagination of the general public the concept was included in the legislative programme for government published by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition in May 2010. (Cameron and Clegg 2010).
The coalition produced extensive proposals for a review of local government under the principles of “freedom, fairness and responsibility” which promised to create directly elected mayors in the twelve largest English cities, (subject to confirmatory referendums and full scrutiny by elected councillors). In a somewhat contradictory statement the coalition also promised to allow councils to return to the committee system should they wish to. The proposals to create more directly elected mayors while allowing existing elected mayors to be abolished illustrates the dichotomy that exists with the current mayoral system in England.
Since the field work was completed for this masters dissertation a new elected mayor, Peter Soulsby, has taken office in the City of Leicester but the concept has been rejected in towns as diverse as Welwyn (Kierenan 2010), Charnwood (Ashe, 2010) and Great Yarmouth (Pullinger 2011). In Charnwood only 32 people responded to a public consultation about the introduction of a directly elected mayor and most of them were in favour of a leader and cabinet model.
There are currently public consultations on-going in several major town and cities in the UK, most notably Birmingham, where two of the city’s MPs, John Hemming (Liberal Democrat) and Roger Godsiff (Labour) are leading a “No” campaign and a broad group of media, business and public sector professionals have formed the “Yes” campaign (Elkes 2011).
The involvement of members of parliament in campaigning for, or against, an elected mayor for towns in their constituencies has lead to some suggestions of a conflict of interest. The Tory MP for Castle Point, Rebecca Harris, signed a petition supporting a referendum on an elected mayor that resulted in an outcry from Castle Point council’s Conservative majority, who are opposed to the idea. Ms.Harris subsequently clarified her position as being opposed to the idea of an elected mayor “because it concentrates too much power in the hands of one individual”. However, she remains a supporter of the campaign to have a referendum on the question since she wants “allow people to have their say”. (Harris in Orbach 2010).
The Mayor of Mansfield expressed the opinion during the field work for this dissertation that “I think the big issue is of course, from the party political leaders viewpoint, is that they lose control, which is why they don’t like it.”