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OPINION - MAYORS' CHIEF POWER

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If ever there was a case of the law of unintended consequences then the introduction of directly elected mayors is ...
If ever there was a case of the law of unintended consequences then the introduction of directly elected mayors is surely it.

Many felt directly elected mayors would lead to a renaissance of public interest in local democracy and that, once a few mayors had been elected, we would reach a point at which people across the country would be on the streets demanding their own elected local supremo.

In fact, new governance arrangements seem to have done little to address the local democratic deficit, while in most parts of the country the enthusiasm for following the lead of Middlesborough, Newham, Doncaster et al is negligible.

Perhaps the most intriguing failure of prediction concerned the consequences of mayors for officers. I remember attending a dinner with local government worthies at which it was taken for granted that strong chief executives would not be able to co-exist with mayors. There was speculation that one chief might stand down to contest the election himself rather than accept the diminished status of mayoral chief of staff.

The only way to defend the power of the officer seemed to be the generally disregarded city manager option. How wrong we all were. The impression gained from talking to both councillors and officers in several of the mayoral councils is that chief executives are even more firmly in the driving seat than before.

On their own, mayors are simply incapable of addressing the range of issues faced by their council. But with their personal - and in some cases anti-establishment - mandate, directly elected mayors are constrained in their ability to follow the cabinet model and devolve significant authority to councillors. This situation is exacerbated where the mayor lacks a majority. Add the impressive lack of local government experience among some of those elected and the outcome is predictable.

Visit one or two of the mayors and you will find they rely heavily on chief executives and other senior officers to take care of the council while they trot around being a figurehead and focusing on their own often quite narrow priorities. In one council the relationship between elected mayor and chief executive has been likened to that between a ceremonial mayor and a powerful majority group leader.

No one predicted the early mayors would include a monkey, Robocop and a Tory. Maybe next month Hackney will have a socialist revolutionary. But as ministers become concerned at the consequences of the mayoral policy, chief executives are happily surprised at how quickly threat has become opportunity.

Matthew Taylor

Director, Institute for Public Policy Research

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