Should Every City Have a Mayor?

In the run-up to the election for the new Mayor of London, on 5 May, the British Academy last night held a discussion to consider whether the model of an elected ‘metro mayor‘ is really one that should be adopted across the rest of the country, as per the Government’s policies for devolution.

There is no doubt that government in this country is highly centralised. One panellist, Professor Tony Travers, went so far as to call the degree of centralisation in the the UK an ‘aberration in the West and a democratic embarrassment’. But to counter this, are elected mayors necessary for the success of other areas outside the capital, such as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’? Are single, powerful, individual mayors important to champion their areas as rivals or counter-weights to the might of London?

Alongside Professor Travers on the platform was Lord John Prescott, Labour politician and former Deputy Prime Minister from 1997 – 2007. Lord Prescott was clear that regional, not city or county-focused government, was the model that the UK should adopt. Under Lord Prescott’s direction, the Labour Government planned to hold three referendums to introduce English Regional Assemblies, following the formation of the Greater London Assembly and the office of the Mayor of London in 2000. Only one referendum was subsequently held, in the North East in 2004. Voters rejected the proposals for a North East Regional Assembly, which Lord Prescott admitted that he had found surprising. Analysing the reasons for this, he suggested that voters in the North East had seen this structure as ‘just another council’, believing that they would need to pay more council tax for more politicians who would actually have little power. As a result of the rejection of the regional assembly model in the North East, subsequent referendums planned for the North West of England and for Yorkshire and the Humber, were cancelled.

Despite this, Lord Prescott was nevertheless unwavering in his view that regional government was essential, to provide areas outside of London with the political clout to argue for extra resources and investment, acting as an effective counter-balance to the capital. He was clear that ‘Metro Mayors’ are being imposed on city regions by central Government as a condition of getting extra powers, in devolution deals brokered with the Chancellor, George Osborne, and questioned whether these individuals will be independent from the Treasury as a result. He acknowledged that the office of the Mayor of London had worked ‘reasonably well’ but said that evidence had shown, from referendums held by the Government in 2012, that voters did not generally want a Mayoral model elsewhere. The Mayoral model should be rejected, he argued, and instead there should be a move to a regional government model, with local government reform.

Professor John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde and the British Polling Council, the final panellist, analysed public attitudes towards elected mayors in greater detail. The results of the British Social Attitudes Survey show that people do generally support the idea that an elected mayor is someone who can ‘get things done’ for their area, with greatest support for the argument that a mayor can act as a figurehead, standing up for the interests of local people. However there is also wide sympathy for the view that the model of an elected mayor results in too much power being vested in one individual. Elected mayors do have greater support in London than in the rest of the UK, showing that once an area has experience of a mayor, they are more likely to support this model of governance. However Professor Curtice showed that support for an elected mayor is generally more likely to be amongst those who already have a high level of trust in politics and politicians; those with low levels of trust are more likely to reject the idea of a mayor.

The issue of ‘power’ vested in a mayor was discussed in more detail by the panellists. Panellists generally viewed the London Assembly as of limited use in scrutinising the Mayor of London. Professor Travers suggested that the media had played the strongest role in holding the Mayor’s office to account and that outside London, the home of much of Britain’s media, mayors would receive much less scrutiny through the press than Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have done. However this was disputed by Professor Curtice, who suggested that mayors might actually find themselves being held to greater account outside of London, by committees of Council Leaders who have come together in the ‘combined authority’ model necessary before a mayor can be elected.

To be truly effective in securing growth and prosperity for the areas that they represent, the panellists agreed, there has to be some form of regionalisation of Government; whether mayors or council leaders, local government has to work together to provide an effective voice balanced against the interests of London. Yet Professor Travers remained sceptical that this would be possible, stating that the structure of local government in the UK is ‘trapped by industrial geography and history’. Britain has fewer municipalities of anywhere in the world and the political areas that we do have are too big to represent local interests, yet also too big to want to work together. Lord Prescott too expressed his view that local councillors ‘protect their own patch’ and fail to collaborate. However Lord Prescott did also highlight the experimentalism that is emerging from different models of governance and devolution deals being adopted across England, and was optimistic that learning could come from this. If elected mayors could collaborate effectively, then it is possible that innovative alternatives to the ‘extreme centralisation’ practised in the UK at present, could emerge.

One of the themes of the RGS-IBG’s 21st Century Challenges programme is ‘Cities and regional economic growth’. The Society held public and policy discussion meetings on this topic in Autumn 2015. 

Image: Polling Station – Acton. RachelH, Flickr.