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ANALYSIS - THE MAYORS ARE LET OUT OF THE LAB

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The government has announced it will no longer force any council to hold a mayoral referendum. ...
The government has announced it will no longer force any council to hold a mayoral referendum.

Given the distaste of most councillors for elected mayors, this appears to herald the end of the experiment.

Areas like Bradford, Birmingham and Thurrock, where just over half the population voted for one of the two mayoral options, now seem unlikely ever to get one.

With just seven mayors in place, and only four more to be elected, opponents of the policy can convincingly claim it is back to business as usual in local government.

But this is strongly disputed by Professor Gerry Stoker, chair of the Blairite New Local Government Network and mayoral cheerleader-in-chief.

He says: 'It is still open for local communities to decide they want to go down the mayoral route. It is a question of whether mayors show they can make a difference.

'My view is that the prime minister has done as much as can reasonably be expected to push the issue. Now it's really up to local people. If mayors show they can make a difference others will want to follow.'

He says the fact the government is not pushing the policy does not matter: 'The onus is back on local communities, which isn't a bad thing if you're interested in local democracy.'

Mayors have already fundamentally altered the local dimension, he suggests. 'This by far and away the most profound institutional change we have ever tried in British local government.

'We talked until we were blue in the face about which model might do what. It was all theory. Now we've got the reality. I'm quite looking forward to it.'

Nor does he believe the mayoral option can be dead while people's ennui with local government and the difficulty attracting councillors are still so overwhelming.

Not surprisingly, mayors themselves say the advantages of the system are unmistakable. Chris Morgan, North Tyneside's young, serious-minded Conservative mayor, says: 'It has certainly changed things, there's no doubt about that.'

North Tyneside MBC has a deficit of between£5m-£6m and Mr Morgan is aware that 'the power I have to take action is much greater than anything the leader would have had'. 'As a result,' he adds, 'I can relieve the problem much more quickly.' All eyes are on North Tyneside to see if this proves to be the case.

The North Tyneside public has welcomed its mayor and officers seem happy to deal with one person. The structure is likely to be divided into one office serving the mayor and one office serving the scrutiny panel, although the proposals are still being drawn up.

Steve Bullock (Lab), mayor and former leader of Lewisham LBC, is impressed by the contrast between the two roles. He says: 'It's 15 years on and maybe all sorts of other things are different but personally [being mayor] feels quite different to my experience of being leader.

'There seems to be a lot more clarity. There is a lot of willingness right across the borough to make this work; starting inside the town hall but extending to our community and our partners.

'I think our partners find this system actually makes more sense to them. In my first few weeks in office I have had conversations with most of our major partners in the private sector and other public service providers where they have been getting to know me, briefing me on their key issues.

'Interestingly, they see me as being their mayor just as much as people in the town hall see me as their mayor. That certainly isn't something that happens to leaders.'

But this rosy picture cannot apply throughout. Prof Stoker may think there is no reform more profound than directly elected mayors, but others would bestow that superlative on the balance of funding.

Furthermore, while mayors' powers are limited by the generally atrophied state of local government, there is still considerable scope for abuse. Recent events in Lincolnshire CC have shown how even a council leader can rule by fear and disregard the law (LGC, 21 June). The dark side of local government could be lethally amplified in the figure of the directly elected mayor.

The government may have left the laboratory, but the experiment has only just begun.

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