The most comprehensive study yet conducted into the role that elected mayors could play in major cities poses a huge number of questions, but the general drift of a University of Warwick report is that answers are only really likely to emerge as the new system develops.
Ten cities including Birmingham will vote in referendums on May 3 to
decide whether to adopt the biggest change to their governance arrangements in 100 years, moving from a system where executive powers are shared by a council leader and cabinet to one where a single person – the elected mayor – is responsible for running the city and elected once every four years.
The Warwick Commission interviewed 42 mayors, staff and senior council figures in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US in what is believed to be the widest ranging international comparative research exercise ever conducted. The aim of the study was to answer the question: “What is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to cities?”
Perhaps predictably, the commissioners decided that “no one size fits all” and it was likely that different cities would adopt different mayoral systems.
However, an underlying thread running through the study makes two key points – that the direct democratic mandate possessed by a Birmingham mayor chosen by up to 700,000 electors should help to repair the political disconnect between the people and politicians, and crucially that a mayor must be seen to be free of party political discipline and act as a leader for the entire city.
Commission, research director Professor Keith Grint said: “Directly elected mayors offer the possibility of greater visibility, accountability and co-ordinative leadership as well as re-enchanting the body politic, and much of this derives from their relative independence from party discipline through their direct mandate and through their four year term.”
The report notes: “Mayors, whether elected through traditional party arrangements or as an Independent, need to act in the best interests of their city, to appoint the best talent available and to work outside of traditional party political confines in order to do a more effective job.
“Most successful mayors are more focused on place rather than party. They are likely to need to spend less time in handling party management, with more room for strong, visible and transparent leadership.”
The warning could be seen as particularly appropriate in Birmingham, where Labour is the favourite to provide a winning mayoral candidate. Three contenders have emerged so far – former Erdington MP Sion Simon and current MPs Liam Byrne (Hodge Hill) and Gisela Stuart (Edgbaston).
The Birmingham Labour Party has drawn up and approved a manifesto for Labour councillors, who are expected to take control of the city council on May 4 until a mayoral election in November. It remains to be seen to what extent a Labour mayor will be bound by the manifesto. Sion Simon, for instance, played little or no part in drawing up the document, while Liam Byrne and Gisela Stuart were far more closely involved.
The Warwick Commission study has much to say about planning for the transition from leader-cabinet system to that of an elected mayor, warning that the incoming administration should not be constrained “in detail or culture”.
Key points in the study include:
- The Government should seriously consider announcing additional powers for mayors before the referendums are held in order to give people a reason to vote for change.
- Mayors should not be constrained by city council boundaries. Metro mayors for regions, the West Midlands for example, would be more effective because they would represent functioning economic areas.
- An appropriate recall system is required to remove under-performing mayors before the end of their four-year term.
- Plans for separate mayors and elected police commissioners are “a nightmare waiting to happen”, while the question of how much to pay a mayor is likely to be a minefield.
The report says the government should consider giving mayors wider powers over transport, welfare and skills – something that might require the government to accept that these powers need to extend over a region, and not just a city.
It is also suggested that mayors be given powers to oversee all public sector spending in a city – some £7 billion in Birmingham’s case – in a move that would make it easier to cut out duplication and make the most of scarce resources.
An underlying theme of the report, the need to re-engage citizens with politics, was summed up by Professor Grint: “Ultimately directly elected mayors may be a way of answering the most important question at the heart of governance: what is the purpose of politics?
“If politics is about how we mediate our individual and collective conflicts then we had better pay some attention to reinvigorating the body-politic: politics is too important to be left to politicians.”
The theme was also picked up at a meeting organised by the Vote Yes to a Birmingham Mayor Campaign, where the two of the three prospective Labour candidates as well as Independents Mirza Ahmad and Desmond Jadoo were asked how an elected mayor would make a difference.
Labnour’s Sion Simon and Liam Byrne spoke at length about additional powers, getting their hands on Whitehall budgets and the importance of the mayor’s “soft powers” to bring together organisations and influence people.
Dr Ahmad, however, proceeded to stick a knife into the heart of the party political system: “The mayor isn’t just going to be the leader of Birmingham City Council. This person is going to be the leader of the city.
“Gone are the days when we thought the status quo was sufficient. The mayor is going to have to work with everyone not just the political party that he or she represents.”
Disclosure: The publisher of the Chamberlain Files, RJF Public Affairs, is the secretariat to the Commission. Paul Dale has no involvement in RJF’s work with the Commission
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