The centre is not the centre: strong men (as ever) versus localism

This May, as part of the coalition's programme of democratic reforms, ten English cities will hold referenda on the future of the elected Mayor model. But while talk of reform is most certainly needed, what would the implementation of this mean for the future of local decision making?

Nan Sloane
14 March 2012

This May, ten cities will hold referendums to decide whether or not they will have elected mayors.  These referendums – in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield – will happen, not because local people have asked for them, but because the coalition government is imposing them on the cities.

Ministers have decided that the resounding indifference shown by voters generally to the directly elected mayor model over the last decade is unacceptable, and that people who refuse to have what’s best for them voluntarily must have it forced upon them.  

This is not an exaggeration. Eric Pickles’ initial plan was simply to convert council leaders into elected mayors overnight, and then to hold “affirmative” referendums some months later. This only changed after it had been pointed out to him on all sides (including his own) that this hardly sat easily with his much-vaunted localism policy, and that it’s tricky to claim that you are enhancing local democracy if at the same time you are removing the democratic process from the equation.

It also doesn’t help that only the Conservative element of the coalition favours the elected mayor model; the Liberal Democrats oppose them in principle on the grounds that elected councils are more democratic. Even the Conservatives find that many of their councillors will be campaigning for 'No' votes, as will many Labour councillors (though not the leadership). Expensive referendums (costing up to £250,000 per authority) are thus being foisted onto local people at the behest of only one part of the coalition as part of a stubborn belief that strong and independent leaders with beefed up powers are the answer to the problems of both local government and local democracy.

When directly elected mayors were introduced by Labour in 2000 it was fondly imagined that local communities would embrace them with enthusiasm and elect local business people, independent candidates or “celebrities”. In fact, 26 of the 39 referendums held between 2001 and 2011 produced no votes, ten of the 14 elected mayors currently in post belong to one or other of the political parties, local business people have shown a marked reluctance to put themselves forward, and most towns and cities have regarded the whole proposition with  indifference.

Hence the compulsion, fuelled at least in part by the view that if the major cities of the midlands and the north had mayors, other places would want to follow suit. In the face of this, two authorities - Liverpool and Salford – pre-empted the decision; Liverpool by doing a deal which allowed it to have a mayoral development corporation, and Salford by holding its referendum early and voting Yes (on an 18 per cent turnout).

The argument for elected mayors is that having one person with wider powers responsible for the key areas of economic development will give the cities of the Midlands and the North strong champions at the national table. But no-one has so far been able to spell out exactly what those powers will be. What’s more, it currently seems unlikely that agreement will be reached before 3 May. Thus voters will be asked to vote for (or against) a directly elected mayor with no firm idea either of what they will gain if they say Yes, or of what their communities will lose if they vote No.

The most likely scenario is that, unlike councils with leaders, elected mayors will have a patchwork of powers, with neighbouring councils having different levels of responsibility for things like economic development and transport.

However, at least with elected mayors the voters will have some choice. When it comes to Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) there is no choice at all. Forty-one police authority areas (outside London) in England and Wales will elect these individuals on 15 November, and the current structure of local police authorities will be replaced by the Commissioner and his/her Police and Crime Panel (PCP).

Amongst other things, PCCs will represent and engage with communities, set priorities for their police forces, prepare annual Policing Plans, appoint, dismiss and hold to account Chief Constables, and set Force budgets and council tax precepts. These are sweeping powers and are contentious in some quarters, but at least we know what they are.  PCPs, which will be made up predominantly of local councillors, will “publicly advise and scrutinise” the Commissioner, but will not have any real powers over policing.

Having failed to learn the lesson of elected mayors, the coalition clung to the idea that PCCs would not be political (and therefore that policing would not be politicised); in fact, all the political parties will field candidates in as many PCC elections as they can. According to a recent Huffington Post piece ministers and Conservative MPs are now trying to distance themselves from these elections as it become clear that most PCCs will in fact be current councillors, former MPs, or former chief constables, and that policing will, after November, be one of the most politicised public services in the country.

There are other issues. It is already known, for instance, that directly elected mayors are less, not more, likely to be diverse; research by the Centre for Women & Democracy, has shown that between 2004 and 2011 only 22 per cent of mayoral candidates were women (as against 30 per cent of local council candidates), and there are currently no grounds for supposing that the gender balance of PCC candidates will be any better. There are no figures for ethnic or any other diversity, but it is unlikely that very many of either the new mayors or the PCCs with be anything other than white, male, and middle class.

Local government as currently constituted is by no means perfect. But it does give local people some access to decision-making. The government’s unwillingness to look seriously at how existing democratic structures could be strengthened and developed is disappointing. Strong men – and they will mostly be men – are not necessarily the answer. 

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