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How ministers' beloved mayors rarely win the love of councillors

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Councils’ loving embrace of devolution has been weakened somewhat by the condition that big bids for power have a significant string attached: the need to establish an elected mayor.

While LGC research has identified nine groupings of authorities willing to accept a mayor – or a similar governance arrangement – few appear to have embraced the idea with much gusto.

Authorities involved in negotiations with the government on devolution deals have largely given a lukewarm response to the idea of appointing an elected mayor.

Nottinghamshire CC leader Alan Rhodes (Lab) told LGC the governance arrangements for its joint bid with county, city and district authorities in his county and Derbyshire were “still subject to negotiation”.

While Sheffield City Region’s backing for a mayor was confirmed las week, governance “options” for the North East Combined Authority remain under development, according to its chair and Durham CC leader, Simon Henig (Lab). While the “possibility of an elected mayor” was in the mix, he added, “no decisions or agreements have been made.”

So what are the pros and cons of the mayoral model? And what is the experience of authorities, here and abroad, of this kind of governance?

According to scholars who keep tabs on global governance, the mayoral model has become an increasingly popular choice worldwide.

Researchers for the LSE Cities group have found that most cities have adopted the mayoral model but that the powers they possess vary widely.

Popularity isn’t the best or only reason to adopt the mayoral model, of course.

For De Montfort University’s professor of local politics Colin Copus, the major advantage of elected mayors is the “direct link” they provide between political power in an authority and the population they serve.

“A lot of eastern European countries recognise the power of that link, having gone through years of dictatorships,” he adds. Mayors lend democratic legitimacy to local government in a way most local leadership regimes do not, according to Professor Copus.

The leader of an English city with a population of 650,000 and 120 councillors, is typically appointed in a closed meeting by half the members of a 60-strong party group, he adds. “This means you go from a 650,000 [electorate] to 32. You can’t tell me that is a democratic system.”

Taking away councillors’ ability to vote in a leader lays behind much discontent about elected mayors, Professor Copus says. “Having an elected mayor means a real transfer of power from the councillor to the voter.”

The need to strengthen the connection between the electorate and the main power broker in an authority will become even more important as councils form combined authorities as part of their devolution bids, says Simon Parker, director of the New Local Government Network thinktank.

“It answers the question: how you hold a city-wide government to account? They could get some substantial powers,” he says. “A basic test of democracy is: can I sack you if you do something I don’t like? With all the challenges mayors bring, the answer is: ‘yes’.”

This test of democratic legitimacy is also seen as important by Catherine Staite, director of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham. “But it is part of a bigger picture,” she adds. “In order to have an effective democratic mandate you need to be clear about the role.

“Will an elected mayor become the public service commissioner for health? Are they the person responsible if a child dies? If their role is to lead co-operation between business and the public services for growth and GVA [gross value added – the region’s contribution to the economy] doesn’t go up, would they resign? Before you know whether they will be any good or make a difference you have to know the task.”

Ms Staite also points to the risks of allowing the electorate to pick the lynchpin of local government, as history in the UK and abroad has shown “You can get someone who is excellent and skilled or a disaster.”

The risks and unanswered questions that the mayoral model raises are recognised by Mr Parker. But he suggests councils should accept the model in order to make the most of the possibilities offered by devolution. “This is the best opportunity we have had for several generations to get power for local government,” Mr Parker adds.

Joe Randall, a researcher at the Institute for Government, appears to agree with such a strategy but for a different reason. “There have been several false starts to city devolution in the past,” he says. “But an accountable mayoral model should help reassure central departments that cities and regions are ready to handle increased responsibility.”

Whether councillors will be happy to relinquish their beloved right to pick their leader, remains, of course, dubious at best.

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