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What executive mayors would mean

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Is it really just 28 days since shadow chancellor George Osborne hailed chiefs’ roles in making “a massive difference” to their local areas?

When talking to a room full of Conservative council leaders, Mr Osborne was falling over himself to hail the role of Tory boroughs – and their chief executives – in giving his aspiring government lessons in how to run public services.

This week saw normal service resumed, with the party taking aim again at one of their favourite targets.

Caroline Spelman is clearly hoping that by dressing it up as an opportunity to soak a chief executive on a “glorified six-figure salary” the public will vote to install an elected mayor.

Conservative Central HQ sources insist they are determined to get a local government and housing bill through Parliament within the first year.

Their feeling is that local politicians must be made more directly accountable for their organisation’s behaviour. The aim is to prevent elected mayors from “hiding behind” chief executives when things go wrong.

This is all fine and if it leads to an increase in the calibre of those entering local politics it will not be without merit.

But there are a few points worth making:

  • First off, it is unclear precisely how much of this council mayors and leaders can’t do already. It is only the role of head of paid service that is a statutory one and the Tories plan to keep it, albeit in a reduced form. North Tyneside Council did away with their chief executive position in 1992 before recanting a year later. Currently, Daventry BC is operating without a chief executive.
  • Secondly, if executive mayors are given sole responsibility for hiring and firing senior staff, that is technically a transfer of responsibility away from the rest of the elected members on the council, not from the chief executive. Senior officers will become explicitly political appointments.
  • Thirdly, the position of chief executive is different in different parts of the country. In some places it will involve plenty of hands-on regeneration work. In others it won’t. Plenty of what chiefs do requires specific and intense training. Will an executive mayor steeped in politics really fancy adopting direct responsibility for emergency planning, for example?

But perhaps the most important role that chief executives perform is as senior adviser to locally elected politicians. Not a political adviser but an adviser on public services.

This is a valuable function and there must surely be questions around the wisdom of doing away with it.

Would Caroline Spelman be interested in doing away with the position of permanent secretary if she enters Eland House as communities secretary next spring?

Who knows? Perhaps she would.

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