Labour turns the screw over mayors

11 Oct 01
As the prime minister embarks on his mission to change the world, it seems appropriate that his junior colleagues are left with the more mundane task of reconstructing Britain.

12 October 2001

For local government minister Nick Raynsford, this means returning to the issue of directly elected mayors.

The next fortnight is a big one for Labour's policy. First, more councils will find the government really is serious about this. They will be told they must hold referendums despite councillors' objections.

Second, next Thursday, October 18, is 'Super Thursday', the day when six councils – Brighton & Hove, Hartlepool, the London Borough of Lewisham, Middlesbrough, North Tyneside and Sedgefield – hold simultaneous referendums for a mayor.

By the beginning of November, we should have a much clearer idea about the political future for London-style mayors in this country.

For the past couple of years, the government's ambitions have been thwarted by councillors who have rejected reform in favour of protecting their own position.

Ministers have stood seething on the sidelines as Labour's big idea slowly became one big yawn. But now they seem to be ready for action.

Last week Raynsford, a man who once briefly harboured ambitions of being London's mayor, fired off angry letters to two authorities – Southwark in London and Dudley in the West Midlands. In them, he warned councillors they faced the very real risk of having referendums imposed from on high unless they clarified their arrangements for political change. This week he was at it again, when Bradford City Council received a similar threat.

A spokesman for the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions said this was just the beginning. Councillors from Birmingham, Newcastle and Thurrock might do well to check their post in the next few weeks.

'Everyone knows what the result of the consultation referendum in Birmingham was,' the spokesman says ominously, referring to the vote that had both sides claiming victory (46.4% of residents voted to retain the current system, 40% for a mayor with Cabinet and 13.4% for a mayor with council manager).

The department rubbishes talk of a tough new stance. 'There's a process involved and it's the first time we have reached this stage,' says the spokesman. 'It is our role to scrutinise what councils do,' he adds.

However, it is clear that ministers are no longer content to let local government put its house in order – unless it is in the order that ministers want.

There has been a shift in emphasis, and not a subtle one at that. Recalcitrant councils will now have to come up with a good reason why they are not holding a referendum, or else they, too, will risk the wrath of Raynsford.

However, although the government's stance is being applauded by those who support the idea of mayors, many say ministers are clearing up a mess of their own making because they allowed councillors, not residents, to be in the vanguard of change.

'The government could not have made it more difficult for itself if it had tried,' says John Williams of the New Local Government Network. He suggests ministers could 'have got a bit Stalinist about it' and forced the biggest 30 or so councils to hold a referendum for a mayor, something he says that has happened in New Zealand and Japan.

The government's new drive increases the focus on the six councils that are going to the polls on October 18. They may not be the biggest, but they could still be very important for the future of mayors. Should they reject the idea, it will be a huge collective snub for mayors; if they back them it will provide a huge fillip. 'It is very important for raising awareness of local government and the influence of political leadership,' says Williams.

By a nice quirk, three of the towns voting have prominent New Labour figures as their MPs. North Tyneside is represented by Stephen Byers, who also happens to be the local government secretary, and Hartlepool's MP is that architect of the Blairite project, Peter Mandelson. Sedgefield, of course, is represented by the prime minister himself.

The vote promises to be close in all six councils, although turnout is not expected to be high. Those that vote 'yes' will join Watford and Doncaster as towns that will have mayors by May next year. Redditch goes to the polls on November 8.

However, with apologies to the residents of North Tyneside, Redditch and Lewisham, their decision will have little impact on the future for mayors in the UK. For the policy to succeed, the government needs one of the country's biggest cities – such as Birmingham, Liverpool or Leeds – to vote yes.

'It needs a big gun to go,' admits Williams.

That is why events in Birmingham have drawn the attention of ministers. If the country's second city can be persuaded to back mayors then the policy will be well on its way.

Other cities could soon find themselves under the government's spotlight. Newcastle is one such target where the prospect of a referendum has receded, thanks to the intervention of councillors and much to the annoyance of ministers.

It may not represent a new world order, but it seems that change is at long last on its way for local government.


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