Could Westminster politics end the march of the mayors?

24 Aug 16

Mayors can provide an answer to the questions of accountability raised by devolution, but they are not the only solution. These decisions should be informed by what works for local places, not by the demands of national politics.

The Times has reported that Theresa May is to abandon George Osborne’s plans for imposing regional mayors. The reported reason for the change of policy? The prime minister’s wish to avoid establishing ‘new powerbases’ for the moderate wing of the Labour party.

This is not a sound basis for policy making and plans for local devolution should not driven by national party politics. We should remember that a sensible devolved settlement is not just about what works for Westminster, but what works for areas like Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley and all the other regions around the country that are set to benefit from increased powers.

So far, DCLG has denied the claims, saying that mayors “remain the best way to make [deals] work”. Though the government stopped short of forcing it on local authorities, directly elected mayors were a core part of George Osborne’s strategy, and government attitudes seemed to be hardening on the issue over the course of 2016. But the DCLG statement does seem to leave room for the government to row back on the mandatory element of the mayor programme.

LGiU has always argued that the decision to establish a directly elected mayor should be a local one and that different models might be appropriate in different areas of the country.

Directly elected mayors can be very positive for a region: they can provide a figurehead and political voice for a region and speak on a national platform for the local community. They have lots of soft convening power and direct accountability to their electorate. Mayors could use their powerful local mandate to ensure that those operating within the local state are accountable and transparent while maintaining acceptable standards.

Mayors therefore provide one answer to questions around leadership and accountability at a local level – but they are not the only answer. There are plenty of other models for regional governance, from a rolling chairship to a committee structure. And there is certainly appetite for different models. Two-tier rural areas in particular have found it difficult to reconcile their ambitions for devolution with the introduction of a mayor. Other parts of the country have already voted against the idea of mayors in a local referendum. LGiU is continuing to explore these options.

It is not surprise that Labour MPs have realised that running a city is a bigger draw than spending years in opposition. However, Theresa May’s reasoning for a u-turn on mayors shouldn’t be politically driven – it should be about sharing prosperity and growth as well as increasing democracy and local accountability.


A version of this blog first appeared on the LGiU website

  • Mayors can provide an answer to the questions of accountability raised by devolution, but they are not the only solution. These decisions should be informed by what works for local places, not by the demands of national politics.
    Lauren Lucas

    Lauren Lucas is head of projects at the Local Government Information Unit

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