Elected Mayors: Prospects for Change

Ian Briggs

The imperfections in our local democratic systems have for seemingly ever been a source of attention and fascination for researchers though the popular attention given to the abandonment of the old committee system and the introduction of a cabinet form of local governance has rarely sparked the imagination of the average citizen. Until now perhaps – with the advent of the powerful local mayor, he or she may provide an individualised loci of attention for local people, businesses and other metropolitan institutions.

The recent Warwick Report does introduce a few more interesting and potentially problematic issues to the ones that are aired in the popular media – the assumed acceleration of inward investment, questions around the role of the necessary ‘close political advisers’ that mayors need and not least the risk of opening the door to single issue or extreme perspectives. This latter point puts me in mind of some years ago the popular support for the executive mayor in Oslo being elected on an anti Gypsy platform.

The pragmatic part of me says that we are likely to resist this given the relative power of our two/three party system. However, the question of are we to have elected mayors or not seems to overshadow the more important question of what do we as citizens want our elected mayors to do? So far there has been little debate on this perspective – here I might suggest a list of things that should occupy them from the start;

1. The drought – we used to call them the ‘water rates’; in that we paid them as a local tax much like the rates on our properties but with shift towards the ‘consumer or customer citizen’ we pay a consumer charge to what is often a non UK based company that returns a healthy profit. True, some of the profit is returned to the country as tax but the business strategy of the provider company is their own concern and they set priorities as they see fit. Could a powerful elected mayor make life so uncomfortable for these ‘businesses’ that they change their operating mechanisms and place more emphasis upon infrastructure renewal and prevent the leakages of supply? Perhaps the mayor could set an example by only showering every other day too?

2. Winter weather – could a powerful mayor reduce to an absolute minimum the gritting and salting of urban roads? Certainly there will be a knock on effect in increased minor (slow speed) traffic accidents and  for many slower journeys to work and the shops. Could they then redirect the gritting to the pavements making it easier for people to walk? A&E departments live in dread of icy and snow covered pavements where especially older residents slip and fall and cost the country untold millions in hip replacements and that is without considering the pain and suffering caused being reduced.

3. Co-production – I have to admit I am a fan of this and I would like to see powerful mayors set an example – they are going to be very busy people so despite having huge pressures on their diaries I would want to elect a powerful mayor who makes the commitment to only work in the role for four days a week – the other two (for they should only have one day off over the week end) they should don overalls and go litter picking and undertake graffiti removal from our underpasses and urban streets. The second day they should apply their culinary skills and help feed the needy and disadvantaged who live below the line. This would really set an example – and here’s the clever bit – when they seek re election we judge them on their co production performance and not on some spooked up external performance measure.

Somehow I feel that we are replacing one imperfect system with another – it won’t be many months into a new breed of metropolitan mayors taking office before we see them falling into all old systems of operating and the perpetuation of the media, academics and politicians of all hues pointing out what they are doing wrong and calling yet again for a change for the better in the way that we citizens are represented.

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

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