Directly elected mayors were meant to reinvigorate local government. Their advocates claimed they would seize the public's imagination and herald a new era of high-profile leadership in local government.
But nearly every English council has published proposals for their new constitutions and more than 80% have opted for a leader and cabinet structure. Of the 18 mayoral referendums so far, the public has voted against in 12, and ministers have proved cautious in using their powers to intervene and force a referendum on a council.
Among the leading advocates of mayors, the New Local Government Network criticises councils opting for a leader and cabinet constitution, claiming they are 'ignoring the will of the people'.
'The public already recognises the advantages of the mayoral system and has consistently registered their support in opinion polls. In May 1999 a nationwide poll found 64% in favour of a directly elected mayor with
40% stating they were more likely to turn out and vote
for a mayor.'
More recently the DTLR published the results of a survey of 10 council areas - over half the respondents claimed it was 'very likely' they would vote in a mayoral referendum in their town or city.
Advocates of elected mayors claim if the public were offered the chance they would strongly endorse directly elected mayors, and with significant increases in turnout. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
There is, unfortunately, no sign the direct election of mayors is increasing turnout in local elections. Most of the referendums so far have been held with 100% postal ballots, which past experience tells us should boost turnout. But, the turnouts in referendums held using postal ballots range between 18% to 36%, and the two held using conventional polling stations only managed 10% and 12%. This is despite many of these councils running active information campaigns.
Local media are clearly having an impact on the results, as are local campaigns. In Hartlepool BC the local evening paper, The Hartlepool Mail gave the issue considerable coverage, encouraging a 'yes' vote. The paper encouraged local celebrities to be mayor, including former Coronation Street star Phil Middlemiss, and rock icon Janick Gers, Iron Maiden's guitarist.
At Middlesbrough Council publicity focused around Ray 'Robocop' Mallen, a local policeman involved in introducing zero tolerance policing in the area, who has expressed an interest in running for mayor. But at Brighton & Hove City Council even the support of the local daily paper, The Evening Argus, could not win the day and voters rejected a mayor.
Another development has been a number of public petitions. Over the next few months these will bring about referendums in Bedford BC, Newcastle under Lyme BC, Stoke on Trent City Council, and probably Oxford City Council. In Stoke the petition was very much lead by the local newspaper, and media promotion has been a factor elsewhere.
But not all media are convinced. Some local papers have encouraged a 'no' vote, raising concerns about the traditional ceremonial mayor, reduced openness, and
too much power being given to one person.
With referendum results in Newham and Southwark LBCs, Shepway DC and West Devon BC due today, May 2002 will see the election of perhaps eight or 10 directly elected mayors.
It will be interesting to see whether these elections raise turnout, and whether they lead to an increase in new and non-party candidates, which is one of the outcomes many voters want to see.
The Local Government Information Unit has supported the principle of local choice over new executive structures. And it has become increasingly clear, particularly since the general election, that falling turnout is part of a wider disillusionment with politicians and the current forms of party politics and debate. Advocates of mayors need to convince the public they are part of the solution to this, and not more of the same.
YES - Anna Randle, mayoral campaign manager, New Local Government Network
Regardless of the ongoing debate about the virtues or vices of directly elected mayors, there is no question the next six months will see a significant change in the shape of English local government.
As the first mayors outside London are voted in, the initial steps will have been taken towards the introduction of a system that, in the long term, could become commonplace in England and Wales. But beyond the structural dimension lies perhaps the most significant aspect of this change - it could be the beginning of a process capable of transforming the relationship between local government and its citizens.
The New Local Government Network has long argued the democratic legitimacy of local government is failing. The arguments are simple. Voter turnout in local elections is low and on the decline. Typically, less than 5% of people can name their council leader, still less their councillor.
This is not a short-term matter, nor is it easy to address. It requires radical change in the way local government communicates and engages with local people. No one is suggesting directly elected mayors are a panacea, but the system does offer voters something truly different. The detail of the elected mayor system is often difficult to communicate to voters, not least because it assumes an understanding of the existing system.
But we can see from previous referendums the message which often rings true is change - new opportunities for local leadership, local services, and local difference.
It is not easy to identify trends in the results already in, where the overwhelming factors affecting the outcome appear to be genuinely local. A closer look, however, suggests an anti-establishment element playing a role in most places where there has been a strong turnout and a decisive vote, either for or against. The constituency, which represents the establishment, varies according to uniquely local circumstances, and may be within or without the council.
At Middlesbrough Council the strong 'yes' vote was arguably an anti-establishment vote for former policeman Ray Mallon, whose expression of interest in standing certainly conveyed the message that a mayoral election offers something different, with potential candidates being drawn from outside local government.
At Doncaster MBC the 'yes' vote was arguably for change in the existing council system, with voters appearing to have identified the potential for more accountability within the mayoral model. And at Brighton & Hove City Council the 'no' vote was arguably against a New Labour constituency - as councillors participated in a high-profile 'yes' campaign.
While this theory may seem discouraging, it does indicate the desire for change among local people exists - and will be demonstrated - where a genuine alternative is available. This could explain why, in other places, turn out has been lower or the difference between the 'yes' and 'no' vote slim. Strong leadership from the council or incumbent leader, or even the ruling party, for example in Lewisham LBC or Watford LBC, could confuse the change aspect of the choice being offered, leading to a degree of ambivalence about the options on the part of local people.
In places where the potential for real change has been clear, turnouts in referendums have regularly been higher than in local elections, indicating there is some truth in the suggestion the mayoral model has the potential to re-engage voters.
It has been the case, almost without fail, that media coverage of referendums has been vastly greater than is normally the case with local elections. Up and down
the country, correspondence pages in local newspapers have been filled with the case for and against, public debates have been organised, and phone-ins held on local radio. Who said local government is dead?
There are many arguments in favour of elected mayors being seized upon by voters all over England and Wales. The domino effect has already begun where local people see the benefits a mayor might bring to their locality.
In many places there is a sense it is time for change, and increasing numbers of people are articulating their interest in the long-term rejuvenation of their local government. Who could argue this is anything other than healthy local democracy?