Only Torbay Council has adopted the mayoral system since, following a successful referendum campaign.
However, last month’s Communities in Control: Real People, Real Powers white paper aimed to breathe new life into the concept of elected mayors. And the favourable responses from many people who have campaigned for them in the past, suggests more referendums could be on the way.
The paper proposed making it easier for campaigners to force referendums in three main ways.
Although a petition will still need to be gathered to prove local support for mayors before a referendum is triggered, such petitions can now be compiled online, rather than laboriously by volunteers knocking on doors or manning stalls in shopping centres.
They will also require fewer names with the threshold to force a referendum diminishing from 5% to 2% of the local population. And where mayoral referendums have failed they could be restaged in four years, rather than 10.
In addition, there will be new carrots to encourage councils to take the mayoral path. Mayors will automatically get an influence over local policing priorities and get to chair the local strategic partnership.
The white paper might have met a lukewarm reception from many in local government, but from the mayoral campaigners it was largely applauded.
Steve Dyson, editor of the Birmingham Mail which failed in its attempt to obtain a referendum through a petition on its pages said that the new proposals could spur another attempt. In March, the paper ended its petition, having only obtained 12,000 of the 36,000 signatures required to launch a referendum. “The new proposals are not yet in place but if and when they are, we will revisit the issue,” said Mr Dyson.
In Sunderland, where the population opted 57%-43% against a mayor in 2001, the leader of the city council’s Conservative group Lee Martin believes the new powers will increase the attractiveness of directly elected mayors. “If the mayor had the power to challenge other authorities on policing allocations and budgets that could be a plus point,” he said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Tory in Sunderland, he stressed that directly elected mayors become appealing when political power has been confined to one party for a long time. Cllr Martin did however concede that now the Conservatives were picking up seats in the area, the idea of entering into a new mayoral process was less attractive.
The mayor for Darlington campaign that secured 42% in favour and 58% against in a ballot last September welcomed the possibility of restaging the ballot after four years, but not the lowering of the petition threshold.
“Allowing for another referendum in four rather than 10 years time is much better, but there needs to be a hurdle and that is the 5% level,” said Harvey Smith, petitioner for the campaign. “If you cannot get that level of support you shouldn’t do it. Otherwise you will get loonies saying ‘freedom for cats’ or something.”
Mr Smith said the Darlington campaign came up against the local Labour machine. “I felt we weren’t fighting on an even playing field. People aren’t able to come together from outside the established political parties and counter their machinery,” he continued.
The example of Mansfield DC has shown how the traditional parties can be defeated by a well-organised team of outsiders. A directly elected mayor was introduced following a referendum in May 2002. Tony Egginton (Ind) was then elected in October 2002 and faced seven months of fighting with Labour that had led the council for the past 30 years.
Mr Egginton’s campaign organiser, local businessman Stewart Rickersey, then put together a group of independent candidates to stand in the local election. This resulted in 26 independents being elected, wiping out the Labour majority.
Mr Rickersey highlighted a genuine vitality in the council chamber without party politics ruling the day. “There is a pub landlady, insurance broker, teacher and a union representative. Debates and decisions are made on their merits. It is no longer true that the Labour leader can say is black is white and they’ll all vote for it,” said Mr Rickersey.
This transformation in the political landscape helped the elected mayor achieve his goals. Mr Egginton was re-elected for a second four-year term last year.
Ben Page, managing director of pollsters Ipsos MORI, believes political party leaderships need to face down traditionalists in their own ranks and force mayoral referendums on major cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. “A referendum was imposed on London, why not impose referendums elsewhere and fight the case properly?” asked Mr Page. “I love endless consultations they are the way I make my living but we need some political leadership in this area. The opposition from inside the political parties needs to be confronted.”
Mr Page regards the changes made by the government as tinkering round the edges. “The reduction of the level of petition support to 2% is not going to make a difference. There is public support for mayors, but it is not a salient issue. Maybe there needs to be something that will really make people angry and then they may move down the
directly elected mayor route.”
One local government leader who remains sceptical is Sir Jeremy Beecham, leader of the Local Government Association Labour group. He sees no appetite for directly elected
mayors among the public. Indeed, he argues the fact the government is looking to simplify the process and lower the parameters is testimony to their lack of popularity.
“Mayors can be effective leaders but so can council leaders. Think of people like Joseph Chamberlain, Herbert Morrison and before things went wrong [ex-Newcastle City Council leader] Dan Smith,” said Sir Jeremy, who claims 80% of Labour councillors are opposed to the idea.
Sir Jeremy believes the concept of a mayor is too personality orientated. “Look at the London mayoral election which was policy-lite and really all about the personalities involved. Even then there was only a 45% turnout.”
Chris Leslie, director of the resolutely pro-mayor New Local Government Network, said giving mayors extra powers, including over policing, will make them more attractive to councils. He added that the future for directly elected mayors is likely to have more to do with the pragmatism of party politics than anything the white paper might offer.
He claimed to see a split emerging in the Conservative Party between the shadow communities secretary Eric Pickles’ element, which has its roots in local government and is more naturally hostile to mayors, and David Cameron’s followers who have had little to do with councils and see them as a short cut to seizing control of Labour dominated cities.
In this context, the Boris Johnson mayoralty is viewed as a work in progress. “The Conservatives like the Boris model, so if it is successful over the next two years, they may roll the dice again as a means to take over elsewhere,” said Mr Leslie.
The new proposals in the white paper make life easier for those who want elected mayors. However, with Labour on the back foot both nationally and locally and any legislation promoting mayors unlikely to be passed for another year, it could be there is a change of government before the impact of the white paper is truly felt.
By then a Conservative government might well be planning a far more radical means of forcing mayors on cities whose politicians have so far proved reluctant to embrace the concept.