The case for an elected mayor

1. Why do we need change?

The current leader-council system in Birmingham:

  • Not democratic
    • The council leader is not selected by the public, but by the council itself, excluding the electorate from the process and potentially leading to partisan politics.
    • Major cities across Europe and America have their democratic say over who should hold executive power.
  • Lack of accountability
    • No clear place for where the buck stops, council leader does not have mandate.
  • No visibility or leadership for Birmingham
    • Lord Adonis – mayor of Cologne has 19 times more presence on internet than Birmingham council leader
    • Lack of awareness of council members/council leader
    • Therefore lack of contact and connection with electorate 

Developments in local government have reflected dissatisfaction with current system and have sought to remedy these problems.

Devolution part of Labour party manifesto – Scotland Act 1998, Government of Wales Act 1998, Northern Ireland Act 1999, Greater London Authority Act 1999

Developments in local government over the previous two decades have reflected this trend…

  • Local Government Act 2000 – important milestone in devolution of powers to local authorities
    • Phased out the committee system for local authorities with populations above 85,000
    • Stipulated that local authorities must choose between either a mayoral leadership model or leader-cabinet model of executive power
    • Strengthened executive power at local level
  • Choice was further defined by the 2006 White Paper – proposed that local authorities choose one of three executive leadership systems, each with a four year term:
    • Directly elected mayor
    • Directly elected executive
    • Indirectly elected leader

‘all executive powers will be vested in the mayor or leader who will have responsibility for deciding how these powers should be discharged’

2. What difference will an elected Mayor make to my life?

It will provide effective leadership 

Electoral Mandate

  • Olympic Games, congestion charge would not have occurred without mayoral mandate
  • Local growth white paper:
    • Mayors will “work closely with neighbouring council leaders on issues such as transport, the strategic approach to planning and wider economic priorities”
    • Transport especially an important factor for Birmingham
      • Major motorways linking north and south
      • Train (plus HS2)
      • Airport
  • Greater freedom to make decisionsmayor

Getting things done

  • Reports from the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) have shown that mayors demonstrate stronger and more effective leadership
  • For example, in his first year of office as mayor of Middlesbrough, Ray Mallon gained a reputation for getting things done by “banging heads together” and cut crime by 18 percent
  • Hartlepool’s mayor, while seen as a “joke” candidate when first elected, garnered a serious reputation by coordinating policies which led to a 20 percent cut in crime, and by gaining the town an “excellent” rating by the CPA.

Less partisanship

  • An elected mayor would be responsible to the public over their political party and would exercise far greater freedom from partisan politics than does the council leader. Instead of being political figure, an elected mayor would be seen more as a community leader. 

Mayoral model as a means of achieving facilitative leadership

Recent decades have seen the emergence of a facilitative model style of leadership for urban governance.

  • “Modern urban governance, because of its demanding and complex environment, requires a facilitative style of local political leadership that is visible, outward looking, open, and less partisan than more established forms”

This model of leadership was first highlighted by Yates – Ungovernable City (1977) – domineering style of leadership in decline due to lack of access to resources, control over organizations and stakeholders, and a defining vision

A facilitator can be defined as a leader “who promotes positive interaction and a high level of communication among officials in city government and with the public and who also provides guidance in goal setting and policy making” ( Svara 2003 , 157).

Research conducted by Stephen Greasley (Lecturer in Politics at the University of East Anglia) and Gerry Stoker (Professor of Governance at the University of Southampton) suggests that a mayoral model is most suitable for this form of leadership.

  • Whilst the mayoral executive would not be “all powerful”, it would “not so prone to be enfeebled as council leaders can be:
    • Under leader-cabinet model, the council leader is at the mercy of the council, which can block or adopt policy with a simple majority
  • Increasingly reliant on “soft” powers
    • Mayor of London acts as a coordinator

In their study of executive leadership models at the local level, Gains, Greasley, and Stoker concluded that the leader-cabinet model “does not advance other elements of facilitative leadership in respect of its accessibility, partnership or non partisanship”, and that a mayoral system would  “most clearly deliver facilitative leadership which embraces partnership, is accessible, non partisan and more efficient”.

Table 1 Perceptions of the Impact of Leadership Forms

Agree/strongly agree that… Leader-cabinet (percent) Mayor (percent) Base Statistical Significance
Partnership        
The council is better at dealing with cross-cutting issues 38 48 1,481 **
The council’s relations with partners has improved 43 57 1,456 ***
Backbench members are more engaged 10 12 1,509 n/s
 Accessibility and openness  
It is easy to find out who has made specific decisions 40 48 1,477 **
The public is more involved in decision making 15 30 1,482 ***
It is easier for women to become involved incouncil business 22 34 1,501 ***
It is easier for ethnic minorities to becomeinvolved in council business  19 34 1,495 ***
It is easier to find out about council policy 49 59 1,503 *
 Partisanship  
Political parties dominate decision making 47 29 1,504 ***
 Profile and decision making  
Decision making is quicker 45 61 1,464 ***
The role of leader has become stronger 68 79 1,474 ***
The leader of the council has a higher public profile 59 82 1,478 ***

n/s = nonsignificant difference; * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p <. 001.

Survey of attitudes of councillors, officers and stakeholders towards mayors and council leaders in 40 authorities. Greasley and Stoker’s study demonstrates that mayors have improved partnership, accessibility and openness, and decision-making, and have reduced levels of partisanship.

For a more detailed analysis of a mayoral executive on facilitative leadership, see Greasley, S. & Stoker, G., (2008) ‘Mayors and Urban Governance: Developing a Facilitative Leadership Style?’, Public Administration Review, 68, (4), 722-730

It will enhance Birmingham’s reputation

A vote for mayor would give Birmingham the opportunity to choose a candidate with the best leadership qualities. Birmingham has historically benefited from strong leaders. The most prominent example is of Joseph Chamberlain, who was an engine for change in the city as Lord Mayor, and who earned Birmingham the title as “the best governed city in the world”.

  • Put into practice the “civic gospel” philosophy put forward by church leaders George Dawson and Robert William Dale during the mid-19th Century
  • This movement was based upon the notion that “a town is a solemn organism through which shall flow, and in which shall be shaped, all the highest, loftiest and truest ends of man’s moral nature”
  • Chamberlain’s executive power provided the thrust for reforms
    • Urban renewal, “gas and water socialism”
    • As noted historian Asa Briggs points out – “Chamberlain’s successful implementation of the civic gospel in Birmingham turned the spotlight on the city in a way in which it had never been turned before”

Stoker G (2004b) Transforming Local Governance: From Thatcherism to New Labour Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Just as Joseph Chamberlain earned Birmingham the reputation of the “best governed city in the world” as mayor, a newly elected mayor would help build on Birmingham’s reputation as a leading city.

Sue Maddock argues that “the lack of respect within Whitehall not only for local government but also for local communities is hampering innovation diffusion across the public sector”.

  • No central figure for Birmingham, few know the name of the council leader.
  • Mayor would take on important responsibilities, such as choosing a cabinet and assigning portfolios of cabinet members.
  • In London, elected mayor has worldwide reputation and is known internationally.
  • Modernizing agenda?
  • Mayors of London have implemented innovative policy via their mandate.
  • Research by New Local Government Network– mayors have higher visibility and recognition that other politicians.
  • Several mayors throughout the country have established major roles as public figures
    • Boris Johnson in London
    • Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough
    • Peter Soulsby in Leicester

3. Isn’t there a danger of more corruption?

An elected mayor will improve accountability and reinvigorate democracy at the local level

  • Turnout to council elections has dropped, need to boost democratization (provide figures)
  • A mayor of Birmingham will select a cabinet from the existing pool of councillors, meaning that more councillors will be elected to the council.

Since a mayor would be directly elected by the local electorate, he/she will be far more accountable to the public. The current council leader does not derive their mandate from the public as they are chosen by other councillors.

  • Mayor can be voted out after four years.
  • Tenure can also be terminated through vote of no confidence in council.
  • Direct relationship with the electorate.
  • Current council leader effectively has no mandate.

Despite enhanced powers, checks and balances on the mayoral office will remain. For instance, the dynamic between the cabinet and backbench councillors will remain. It will be the responsibility of backbench councillors to perform oversight of the cabinet through scrutiny committees. The council can also still reject mayoral proposals, but will require a two-thirds majority.

Most charges of corruption draw on examples from mayors in the USA. However, due to the proliferation of mayors in USA, which has hundreds, compared to UK, which has 12, this is an inappropriate comparison. The mayoral system in America is also different. The “strong-mayor system” in many American cities assumes far-greater powers for the mayor. For example, in Denver, Colorado, the mayor has in the past had powers to award contracts worth $500,000 without council approval, and appoint 50 heads of administrative departments as well as county judges. Even so, in recent years, the strong-mayor form has moved to a more facilitative style in response to these shortcomings.

  • Accusations of corruption – tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Corruption exists . In the case of the mayor, it will be the responsibility of councillors to maintain checks and balances.
  • Directly elected mayor with referendum unique to Britain (countering claims that this idea is a US-import)
  • Criticism – very few mayors in UK, untested, unpopular etc.
  • One reason why so few authorities voted for the mayor-cabinet model might be due to the perception among councillors and politicians that a mayor would disrupt existing power structures:
  • Self interested

The case of Stoke

Critics often point to the case of Stoke-on-Trent, where the position of mayor was established in 2002 but was later removed in a 2008 referendum. What must be pointed out, however, is the distinction between the executive model Stoke adopted and the one proposed for Birmingham. Stoke implemented a mayor and council manager executive as opposed to a mayor and cabinet executive, and was the only city to do so. Furthermore, this option was in fact repealed in 2007 by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act due to the confusion it caused.

4. Won’t an elected Mayor be too expensive?

Referendum costs offset by longevity of post

  • For example, of the 14  referendums which voted yes on establishing a mayoral position, only Stoke-on-Trent reverted back to a leader-cabinet model—and has already been mentioned, this was a completely different system to the one established in all other cities.
  • 12 of the mayoral posts were established ten years ago.
  • Will bring more foreign investment to the city
  • “GLA Economics” branch of the mayoral office views international investment from a “London-perspective rather than from a UK-perspective”
  • London mayor has established representative offices in China to facilitate FDI.

5. Won’t an elected Mayor be out of touch? How will they hear my views? 

An elected mayor will add a human face to the often impersonal processes of local government. Since a mayor will be democratically elected by the people of Birmingham, he/she would be incentivized to engage with the citizenry and remain as accessible and visible as possible. A mayor would therefore be better placed than a council leader to understand community issues.

There are many ways in which an elected mayor for Birmingham will hear your views and respond to the concerns of the electorate. Ways in which other mayors speak directly to the people include face-to-face open-surgeries, phone-ins, or via email.

Research by Leach et al. finds that “mayors generally recognized the need for a high degree of visibility and responsiveness to public and stakeholders concerns” in contrast to non-mayoral leaders, who “varied more in the extent to which they recognized this”. This enhanced visibility and openness was made clear by Sir Steve Bullock, mayor of Lewisham, who pointed out that “if I go into a supermarket, people come up and tell me what’s going wrong.”

Sources

Briggs, A., (1965) Victorian Cities. University of California Press

Gains, F., Greasley, S., John, P. & Stoker, G., (2007) Does leadership matter? A summary of evidence on the role and impact of political leadership in English local government. Department for Communities and Local Government: London

Yates, Ungovernable City