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Boris could be mayoral saviour

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A year ago, who would have guessed that the main emblem of hope for the elected mayoral model would be Boris Johnson?

Certainly not me. But having spent time in his company recently I think it just might be that he can kickstart the process again and encourage more local authorities to go down this route.

For those of us who are keen advocates of the mayoral model these can seem dark days. In Stoke, political manoeuvrings have put paid to their elected mayoral model, while Doncaster MBC’s Mayor Martin Winter (Ind) is under criticism for the standard of children’s services under his jurisdiction.

Furthermore, calls from think-tanks such as the New Local Government Network and the Institute for Public Policy Research for the government to be more ambitious in encouraging more mayors across the country have met with limited success.

One will search in vain for any meaningful mention of mayors in the Local Democracy, Economic Development & Construction Bill currently before Parliament.

So what of Boris ? He identifies the mayoral challenge in Darwinian terms: mayoral authorities should demonstrate that they can create a new type of political leadership and accountability, distinct from the role of a council leader. Those who don’t shouldn’t be surprised if they come unstuck.

To match this, elected mayors should have clear, additional powers over areas such as policing and some revenue-raising powers.

They should also forge a new type of political representation. Mr Johnson argues they must act as both a chief consumer and chief producer of services; acting both as the people’s representative and their leader.

This is a significant challenge, which necessitates that civic leaders should be genuine champions of grassroots opinion but also make difficult decisions about how services are delivered.

He also believes that his mayoralty will be defined by his relations with London’s boroughs and it strikes me that this form of inter-governmental network could become a template for city-regional governance.

Following Boris’s victory in May last year it was hoped other areas might catch the mayoral bug and look seriously at adopting the system. However, inertia from all main political parties has stymied the process.

While Hazel Blears remains an unequivocal advocate of the mayoral model, endorsement is more lukewarm from other parts of government. David Cameron , despite recently reiterating his pledge to introduce up to 30 new directly elected mayors, faces dissent from his own grassroots and looks unlikely to tackle the issue in the Conservative’s forthcoming localism paper.

The Lib Dems, often the champions of strong local leadership, remain curiously opposed to elected mayors.

So will the mayoral model succeed or fail on the basis of Boris’s tenure in London? Much will depend on whether he, and other elected mayors, can demonstrate that they can provide a different style of leadership, one that is perhaps less motivated by political ideology and more by practical reality.

It will also be imperative that Boris demonstrates an ability to make a real difference on issues like supporting London’s economy, reducing crime and improving transport infrastructure.

Should this happen it may be that other towns and cities in the UK might once again look seriously at the advantages of having an elected mayor. While the system may not contain the silver bullet of good governance, or indeed be right for every area, a renaissance in mayoral interest could become a useful vanguard for those campaigning for further localism.

Let’s remember that there have only been two elections in the past couple of years that have really captured the public’s imagination: Obama v McCain in the US and Ken v Boris. Where the London Mayor leads, hopefully others will follow.

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