Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
The House Magazine
Hard as it is to believe, there was a time around 2000-2001 when many people thought elected mayors were about to transform the governance of the UK’s major towns and cities. Supporters of the idea wrote about the deficit in leadership, vision and accountability that mayors would fill in cities such as Liverpool and Birmingham. Detractors organised campaigns designed to undermine the idea, on the basis that mayors would fall prey to corruption, privatisation and personality politics.
After the election of only eleven local authority mayors, many thought the death knell for the idea had sounded. Long term observers of local government however, may be forgiven for experiencing a strange sense of déjà vu over recent months. Mayors are on the agenda again, and the prospect of such leadership in our major cities is being resurrected.
So what has changed? A number of factors have brought about the return of the mayoral idea, including the unanswered regional question and the ongoing desire of central government to increase the visibility and impact of local leadership. Most importantly, the debate about mayors has moved from being polarised and abstract, and based on what people believe mayors might or might not do, to an evidence-based discussion about their tangible value.
The ‘First Eleven’ mayors have in fact provided a small, but extremely useful sample through which to learn about the impact of the model. Mayors have been tested in some of the most challenging circumstances possible: many in areas with high levels of deprivation and decline, and a poor record of political leadership, such as Hackney and Doncaster.
However, mayors have proved that in practice they can act as extremely effective agents of change and delivery in such places. Performance in mayoral councils as judged by the Comprehensive Performance Assessment has improved, in some cases radically. This has allayed earlier fears that mayors would be populist figures with no focus on service outcomes.
Mayors have also proved that although being strong leaders with a direct mandate, they can take a very consensual approach to policy making. In many cases, they have worked effectively with councillors of different political parties, and with local partners such as the police and health services to deliver positive outcomes.
There is also strong evidence to suggest that mayors have been effective in re-engaging with the public. Polling evidence shows mayors have far greater levels of name recognition than council leaders. They have also developed innovative ways of demonstrating and responding to their direct public accountability, for example through regular columns in the local newspaper and the holding of surgeries in supermarkets on Saturday mornings.
The Government has clearly signalled its intention to re-visit the mayoral idea, through both the Labour party’s election manifesto and the discussion papers on local leadership published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister back in January. Most of the interest this time around is focused on cities and new vehicles for driving city economies and regeneration through leadership and accountability. The vision of mayors for Liverpool and Birmingham may become a reality after all.