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WILL MAYORS TURN OUT BE HEROES OR ZEROES?

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The world woke up this morning to a new dawn in local democracy. The names of new style leaders at seven English co...
The world woke up this morning to a new dawn in local democracy. The names of new style leaders at seven English councils are now known and all eyes will be upon them to see how the big experiment in directly elected mayors turns out.

The modernisation of councils is the biggest change to local democracy since today's political structures were put in place more than 100 years ago. Whether or not the directly-elected mayoral system for councils spreads, or even works, will depend largely on these seven individuals - their vision, their personalities and the relationships they form over the next four years.

Some say the mayors will have no power, as local government has no powers, but the profile they have will undoubtedly be high. They will be full-time politicians with salaries to match a backbench MP's and they will certainly have more local power and influence than their MP - with a few notable exceptions.

It seems likely they will also achieve the previously unachievable and raise the profile of local government - an unprecedented 20 news organisations attended the mayoral count in Middlesbrough.

But it is how they choose to exercise this influence which will be crucial to their success. Relationships with chief executives and senior officers will be key, and there will be differences in the way the prototype councils relate to regional and central government. Relationships with local MPs could be strained if the MPs feel they are being sidelined. There will be new roles too for those in the cabinets the mayors appoint and for the councillors left out.

There is the scope to make the system work well, simplifying the complicated council decision making process and making the lines of accountability transparent.

But there is also scope for fireworks and farce. The electorate has handed control to paid leaders with, in many cases, little evidence of their ability to do the job. Four years is a long time if the power goes to their head. Scrutiny committees will have to get to grips with the task quickly.

Betting shops in Hartlepool closed the books on the candidate standing as a monkey two days before the election, fearing they could lose a lot of cash, exposing the potential for farce.

But the job is a serious one. These mayors will be a litmus test for a new way of working for local democracy. The future of local government could depend on whether this experiment works or becomes a laughing stock.

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