18 March 2005
Directly elected mayors were once ministerial flavour of the month – but the policy was resoundingly rejected by voters. Now, even John Prescott has converted to the idea. David Harding reports
Along with Camilla Parker-Bowles, directly elected mayors' time might finally have come. Despite being largely unloved and ignored by many people across the country (mayors as well as Mrs Parker-Bowles), they could be about to become a permanent fixture.
Number 10, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, think-tanks in the know and lobby correspondents with the ear of the Cabinet have all begun talking about local government's need for mayors.
'I am more optimistic now than ever before that there are a lot of things stacking up for local government,' says Gerry Stoker, professor of political science at the University of Manchester and a long-term advocate of mayors.
'Even the most miserable Cabinet minister can look at the Comprehensive Performance Assessment results and see that local government is generally well-run and better run than before. It has a lot of competent officers and leaders.'
In Stoker's view – and ministers' – mayors would help local government become even more competent and effective as leaders who can set policy and create strategies across a whole city.
Policy-makers see them as the accountable solution to modernising local government. They have watched Ken Livingstone take the politically risky decision to introduce congestion charging – and survive. With regional government failing to take root, the ODPM's own review of local politics reiterating the government's desire for leadership in local government, and local government minister Nick Raynsford saying 'no change is not an option', mayors seem the most obvious solution for some.
Tony Blair is also a long-term fan of the idea. 'The prime minister has always been consistent,' says one well-placed source. 'He thinks you get better performance in an organisation if there's clear and accountable political leadership.'
Alan Milburn, the former health secretary drafted back into the Cabinet to oversee the general election campaign, is also in favour.
And, latterly, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has emerged as an unlikely supporter. Dragging his political weight behind the idea, Prescott, who used to reserve a trademark scowl for the very idea – but recently saw his dream of regional government collapse faster than the fortunes of the English rugby team – has succumbed.
'Mayors can be a driving force,' he said to genuine surprise at the Delivering Sustainable Communities summit in Manchester last month.
Raynsford is also an unabashed enthusiast. 'This is unfinished business,' he told Public Finance. 'We have seen a number of mayors created and I think the evidence is that they have made a significant impact, but we all know this is restricted to a relatively small number of areas.
'It is noticeable that none of the other big cities have had the opportunity to see whether a mayor can make an impact.'
To persuade others to take up the idea, Raynsford is now looking into the concept of city regions headed by more powerful mayors. Like Livingstone in London, these would have beefed-up powers in transport and economic policy, which would have consequences across a region rather than just the confines of a city.
The minister is hoping that the prospect of more powerful mayors will eventually persuade people in the country's major urban centres to take up the challenge. They will act 'as community leaders able to pull together a range of people'.
But this is the same justification ministers had for mayors when the idea was first introduced in the late 1990s. The general aim then was that mayors would provide clear, accountable defined political leadership and revitalise voter interest. They would be figureheads whom the electorate would know to praise or blame, depending on what happened, rather than an anonymous chief executive.
They would also provide a shot in the arm to the moribund world of local government, reversing the decline in interest. Younger readers might not know it, but in those sun-kissed days of just several years ago, mayors were regarded as the panacea for local government.
In these war-ravaged, more cynical, times it is hard to believe that such innocence had political pundits raving about a man called Rudy Guiliani, who had transformed New York with something called 'zero tolerance' and looked forward to the day Mayor Branson would do the same for London.
No matter that Londoners eventually took it upon themselves to elect the very man kicked out a few years previously by central government, Ken Livingstone, the major cities outside the capital would surely back the idea of mayors. The Local Government Act 2000 paved the legislative way.
Civil servants decided that referendums for a mayor would be triggered if the local population could raise a petition of at least 5% of the electorate. Ministers sat back proudly and waited expectantly for the big metropolitan centres to pick up the shiny new baton.
Big mistake. Birmingham's councillors stood firm in a vicious local spat to resist overtures for a mayor. The pressure was so intense, it is said, that the prime minister met John Prescott and then minister Stephen Byers to discuss the possibility of forcing the council into holding a vote for a mayor without the need for a referendum. Only the fear that the city would not elect a Labour mayor apparently put them off.
Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester decided to take the path trodden by Birmingham, and it didn't stop there. Mayors were overwhelmingly rejected in places as far apart as Plymouth, Gloucester, Redditch, Brighton & Hove and Oxford.
Embarrassingly for the government, the voters of Sedgefield, who number among their electorate the Cabinet's most important member, also gave an emphatic thumbs-down to the idea.
As if saying 'no' was not enough, turnouts in mayoral referendums provided a further snub. In Sunderland, just 10% of voters, little more than 21,000, bothered to cast a vote. Around 11% of the London Borough of Southwark's citizens managed to stir themselves. Most who did – 13,217 – voted no.
In the west of the capital, turnout in Ealing's mayoral referendum in 2002 was a staggeringly low 9.8%, setting a dubious record for uninterest.
In 31 mayoral referendums across England and Wales, only one attracted more than half of all registered voters, when 64% of Berwick-upon- Tweed's electorate made their views clear. No prizes for guessing the result. By the summer of 2002, the government announced they would no longer force local authorities to hold mayoral referendums.
Why had voters proved so sceptical? 'Once a mayor is elected, it seems to us that the democratic process in a way is lost,' says Dafydd Lewis, who helped campaign for the 'No' vote in Ceredigion in May last year.
'Power would be in the hands of the mayor and nobody else. He was able to choose his own Cabinet. People who had not been elected could serve in that Cabinet.
'In a way, we believed it was a step back for democratic accountability. We still hold that view. People see it as a kind of quick fix when the local authority is unpopular,' he says.
Others in Ceredigion shared Lewis's view. More than 14,000 people rejected the idea in a referendum while just 5,300 supported it.
There was deep mistrust of mayors, not only among local politicians anxious not to lose their positions of influence, but also among ordinary voters. Some, though, did embrace the idea. Stepping into this political vacuum were places such as Watford, North Tyneside, Hartlepool and the London Borough of Newham.
With respect, the dreaming spires of Lewisham, Mansfield and Bedford, other councils that backed mayors, could not have been what ministers and advisers were thinking about when they were drafting the policy.
Mayors were lauded for their work in glamorous cosmopolitan far-flung cities such as New York and Barcelona, but Fifth Avenue and the Ramblas these were not. And there were further problems. The turnout in Doncaster was a quarter of the electorate, and it was roughly the same in Watford and Newham.
The most comprehensive 'yes' mandate, in terms of turnout, came in North Tyneside, where just 36% of people bothered to cast a vote. However, within months the winner had to stand down when he was accused of accessing Internet child porn. He was later cleared of all charges.
In Hartlepool, the vote was won by the mascot of the local football team, H'Angus the monkey. Supporters of the mayoral policy winced and a nation laughed when the then local MP Peter Mandelson looked on powerless as the thumbs-up monkey, promising free bananas for all, triumphed in the town's poll.
Stuart Drummond – the man inside the suit – soon put on a collar and tie and decided to become a serious politician to the extent that he has decided to stand again for election on May 5 (there are two other mayoral re-elections on that day, in Stoke and Doncaster). So intent was he on becoming a real politician that he dropped his banana pledge within hours of taking office.
In all, 11 councils chose the mayoral option. The New Local Government Network think-tank, one of the most avowedly pro-mayor organisations in the country, says these have, by and large, been a success.
'They have been proved to work in the 11 areas where they have been adopted,' says the NLGN's Anna Randle. She points to reduction in crime in Middlesbrough, where Mayor Ray Mallon, better known by his sobriquet 'Robocop', oversaw a period of political turbulence and helped to cut crime by 18% in his first year in charge. Doncaster, Hackney and Newham all received good CPA ratings. Ken Livingstone in London has also won wide praise, not least from Raynsford.
'The impact Ken Livingstone has had on transport policy, with the congestion charge, is probably the most significant change in transport policy in Europe in the past ten years,' says the minister.
A report from the NLGN published last year found that these mayors had certainly increased the profile of local government. 'Regardless of how each individual mayor is performing, their increased visibility as “mayor of the area” is influencing how people judge their performance,' the report said.
'In the public's eye, they are no longer the anonymous, non-directly accountable leader of the council but the person with whom the buck stops. Such profile has the potential to strengthen democratic accountability.' Randle says that their success is 'evidence-backed now'.
Certainly, raising a town or borough's profile is one argument put by the mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Mike Wolfe. 'Love or hate us, lots of people like me and lots of people hate me – and almost nobody in Stoke is unaware of me. People know who is accountable,' he says.
Wolfe, a gay rights campaigner elected as an independent in October 2002, has won praise for improvements to the city centre. He says mayors can transform a city's image. 'I don't look or sound like most people in Stoke-on-Trent,' says the former Citizens Advice Bureau worker. 'Even by me opening my mouth, people can change their view of Stoke-on-Trent.'
Wolfe admits he has had problems with the political status quo – 'I have been in an almost continuous state of war in Stoke-on-Trent with councillors who resent their loss of power.' But he claims a single city leader can get things done, especially when it comes to trying to persuade the private sector to invest in a town.
And it is clear that some people still want mayors. In Torbay, the council will hold a referendum for one on July 14 – Bastille Day – an auspicious date for political change. 'We have seen what other towns have done and we want a mayor in Torbay,' says campaigner David Scott. The town needs 'stability and leadership', he argues, to help alleviate 'yo-yo politics' – where one party gets into power and is soon replaced by another. 'The big advantage to having a mayor is that the public will know who their leader is and who is personally accountable.'
But to persuade more people to take up the idea of mayors now requires a fresh impetus, and that brings us back to the plan for super mayors of city regions. A recent pamphlet from Gerry Stoker, What is local government for?, set out the position, although this is not a new idea and such mayors have already worked on the European mainland.
The mayors would have seven or eight 'key powers' on things such as transport, housing and economic strategy. They would liaise with and lead local councils in these areas. In time, they could even lead to a new reorganisation of local government by usurping the powers of existing councils, which would wither away as they were no longer needed. London, Manchester and Liverpool could experience a reduction in the number of councils in the outlying regions.
Political pie in the sky? Well, not according to one source, who claims that 'groups of people in the ODPM, Number 10 and the Treasury think city regions make a lot of sense'.
But, as with the initial idea of mayors, to succeed it needs a major city, a Birmingham or Liverpool, to vote one in, a point Raynsford concedes.
So, how to persuade the doubters? The government is already 'kicking around' ideas about how to force referendums. Proposals mooted so far include scrapping the need for 5% of the electorate to petition for a referendum in big cities, as 5% of a few million voters is seen as too large a number to achieve.
Alternatively, ministers could force failing councils to have a vote on a mayor, to see if a new form of leadership is required.
Another idea is to put the question to the electorate of whether or not they want a mayor on the bottom of a council election ballot slip.
Raynsford dismisses such approaches as 'mechanistic and waving the big stick'. He prefers to try and win over 'hearts and minds'.
'Mayors are a positive measure. I would have thought a number of other cities would be interested in considering the options,' he says.
Opponents have been warned.