An elected mayor for Birmingham?

On May 3rd, the people of Birmingham will decide if they want a directly elected mayor and if so, on 15th November they’ll decide who they want. There has been so much debate about what an elected mayor could achieve for Birmingham and the West Midlands, perhaps it is a good time to look at the evidence and compare it to the aspirations.

Do mayoral authorities perform better? Audit Commission performance data show that some mayoral authorities did improve significantly between 2005 and 2007. For example, North Tyneside and Hackney rose from ‘poor’ to ‘3 star’. This may well demonstrate the benefits of strong leadership and accountability for councils which historically had poor political leadership but correlation is not the same as causation. Many non-mayoral authorities also improved at the same time and there were exceptions to the pattern of improvement in mayoral authorities.  Doncaster and Stoke spring to mind.  Stoke is a complex story  but Doncaster is a classic example of how poor leadership and bad behaviour on the part of an elected mayor can undermine a town – whose residents turned to an elected mayor in the hope of a new start but merely replaced widespread corruption with wholesale under-performance and negligence.

Does directly accountable leadership make a difference? Research suggests that mayors have been able to use their personal leadership to good effect but so have the leaders of non-mayoral authorities.  Some cities and city regions such as Manchester and Leeds have done well in spite of not having a mayor. 

What can a mayor do for Birmingham and the West Midlands? Birmingham has long been perceived as an underperforming city, partly because of local political and economic history and partly because of regional issues such as a traditional resistance on the part of the other six  West Midlands councils to Birmingham exerting ‘too much’ influence. You can hear the hackles rise as potential mayoral candidates set out their region-wide ambitions for the role.

Cities are complex constructs: where does the city of Birmingham end and the West Midlands region begin? Many proponents of the benefits of elected mayors, such as Lord Heseltine, who has been making the case since 1991, and Lord Adonis talk about the benefits of regional or metro-mayors.  But that isn’t the model we’re getting here, in contrast to the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner, who’ll be elected on the same day with a region-wide remit.

What can mayors do? The powers of mayors under Local Government Act 2000 are limited: to be elected for four years, to decide the size and membership of the cabinet and delegation of powers and to set the budget and strategic policy framework of the council, which can be rejected by a two thirds of the council members.  Hardly a demagogues’ charter!

So what can a mayor do for Birmingham that a council leader can’t do? Under the Localism Act 2011, the Coalition Government is planning to devolve some ‘local public functions’ to councils. Cities will bid for new powers and freedoms on; economic growth, infrastructure, housing, planning and skills and employment.  Cities with mayors will automatically be considered for these new powers and freedoms because they can demonstrate ‘strong, accountable leadership’ – but they will not be granted automatically.

Might it be better to focus attention on the local, regional and national barriers to achievement in Birmingham and the West Midlands and tackle them collectively, rather than expecting the mayor to overcome them alone by heroism and enormous force of personality?  It’s a big ask.

Catherine StaiteCatherine Staite (Director of INLOGOV)
Catherine provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

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