The other 1215 Charter: 800 years of elected mayors

Chris Game

The LGA’s Magna Carta web pages have recently featured a delightful homophone – sounds the same as another word, but different spelling and meaning.  Among this summer’s many MC commemorative events will reportedly be “a programme of inciteful lectures and talks” (my emphasis).

Excellent, I thought. Insight’s for wimps. Rousing incitement is what’s needed if, like the LGA, we’re to model today’s struggle for devolution on that of the 13th Century rebel barons with their tyrannical but cash-strapped King, and what better rouser than the Association’s aptly named Chair, David Sparks.

Given the countless products already being promoted by June’s 800th anniversary – from Jay Z’s free-to-smartphone album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, to the British Library’s ginger fudge – cynics might accuse the LGA of bandwagon jumping. But they’d be unfair.

There is much more local government stuff in Magna Carta than I for one first appreciated. I knew the main local government clause (13), about the City of London and “all other cities, boroughs, vills [towns] and ports” being assured all their “ancient liberties and free customs, by both land and water”. But I’d no clear idea what the liberties and customs were, and also assumed that was about all there was.

In fact, most of clauses 23 to 31, ostensibly about such things as county farms and commandeering of timber, actually referred to malpractices of the King’s local agents – sheriffs, bailiffs, and so on – with clause 25, perhaps most relevantly to modern-day concerns, limiting the financial burdens placed by the King on the counties.

Then there’s clause 48, empowering 12 knights elected in each county to investigate and abolish those malpractices, which can be seen as part of a wider local self-government campaign around the turn of the 13th Century.

Even so, there’s a still better instance of early local self-government in a contemporaneous charter which, though less known, was important in itself and also played a key part in shaping the Runnymede agenda: the King’s Charter for London of May 9th 1215.

The London here, of course, is the famous Square Mile – today’s City of London Corporation – some of whose ‘ancient liberties’ predated the Norman Conquest. From 1067, in exchange for London’s supporting the King with cash or troops, these liberties were extended in successive royal charters, and included exemptions from certain taxes and tolls, right of trial by the City’s own courts, and the right to appoint civic officials.

Richard I (1189-99) was particularly indebted to Londoners, as funders of his crusades overseas and defenders against his baronial opponents at home, and it earned them in the early years of his reign both a recognized body of self-government, in the form of a Norman-style ‘commune’ – precursor of the City Corporation – and their own mayor, in place of the King’s Portreeve or sheriff.

Historians dispute precise dates, but the City claims 1189 as the year Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonestone was appointed its first Mayor – the addition of ‘Lord’ took another 200 years – and proceeded to serve a never remotely repeated 24 terms.

This circumstantial evidence alone suggests Fitzy was not only entirely acceptable to the King, but probably a financial backer and appointed by him.  And explicit reinforcement comes in the May 2015 Charter, King John’s last desperate (and unsuccessful) attempt to detach London from the baronial insurgency that would culminate in the following month’s Magna Carta.

Charter for London

In a key concession and, it seems, the first documented reference in this country to a popularly elected mayor, the Charter grants “to our barons of the City of London, that they may choose to themselves every year a mayor …”.

The full translation, from the second line of the illustrated extract, runs:

“Know ye that we have granted … to our barons of our city of London, that they may choose to themselves every year a mayor, who to us may be faithful, discreet and fit for government of the city, so as, when he shall be chosen, to be presented unto us, or our Justice if we shall not be present… and he shall swear to be faithful to us; and that it shall be lawful to them, to amove him and substitute another, if they will, or the same to retain …”

The King’s climb down could not be clearer. The tables are turned: You now choose your own Mayor, and I get to approve his faithfulness, rather than the reverse.  It wasn’t his biggest surrender of that 1215 summer, but it was significant then and, whatever you happen to think of even the idea of directly elected mayors, it obviously still has its relevance today.

The story, and this blog, could obviously end here, but that would have involved omitting quite an interesting postscript, which links these events directly to the one Lord Mayor of London that even most non-Londoners can name: Richard Whittington.

We need to set aside much of the pantomime tale: the Gloucestershire lad, Dick, and his fictional cat who, returning home up Highgate Hill after failing to find his fortune in London, heard the distant Bow Bells preternaturally telling him to fulfil his destiny and “Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London”.

Never mind what he was doing returning to Gloucestershire via Highgate Hill, or whether he could conceivably have heard the Bow Bells chiming five miles away. The interesting bit is the ‘thrice’ – because, by the time this bit of nonsense was written, centuries later, Whittington had in fact served four mayoral terms: 1397-98, 1406 and 1419. So why the confusion?

No Lord Mayor since Whittington has served as many terms, so there can be no doubting his renown and popularity during his own lifetime. His money helped.  A successful import-export merchant, he’d have easily made the Sunday Times Rich List, and he spread it around judiciously. Plenty was ‘borrowed’ by the King of the day, but plenty also went to good causes and public works – including an unmarried mothers’ ward at St Thomas’ Hospital, rebuilding the Guildhall, and a 128-seat public toilet.

The one big irony in all this is that the early public affection for Whittington’s mayoralty owed much to his initially NOT having been popularly elected – despite it having become the established practice by then for London citizens ‘at large’ to choose their mayor, with the King formally ratifying their choice.

However, when the incumbent mayor died in June 1397, Richard II, in one of his absolutist moods, decided he’d do the electing and simply imposed Whittington, one of his long-term creditors, on the City. The new mayor responded by negotiating a costly but popular deal, buying back for London its own usurped privileges for £10,000 (around £6 million today), and in October was triumphantly elected by a grateful citizenry – the two separate assumptions of office in the same year apparently accounting for the doggerel-writer’s ‘thrice’, unless of course it was the difficulty of scanning ‘quadruple’.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Pickles’ Tower Hamlets takeover: a sad affair all round

Chris Game

He kept Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, waiting until almost literally the 23rd hour of the 14th day of his two-week deadline. In the end, though, Tower Hamlets’ elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, having last Friday lost his second, and ill-advised, application for a judicial review, was left with little choice.

With forced smile and through gritted teeth, he was willing to accept and “welcome” the minister’s ‘intervention package’ and his three commissioners, who until March 2017 will take over specified mayoral and council responsibilities. About the only proviso he could muster to cover his mayoral modesty was that the solutions they offer should be “proportionate and workable” – which is about as low as climb-downs go.

The fortnight deadline had been conceded by Pickles when he made his intervention statement to the Commons on November 4, following a critical Best Value report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) into the borough’s governance arrangements. He could afford to be briefly conciliatory, because he knew Tower Hamlets’ fate had been effectively sealed in the summer, when the mayor’s first application for a judicial review was dismissed in the first line of the judgement as “hopeless”.

By one of life’s pleasing coincidences, that judgement coincided almost precisely with PwC’s regulatory advisory services unit being fined $25 million (or roughly Tower Hamlets’ annual transport budget) and suspended from consulting work for watering down a money laundering report.

I doubt if even Pickles suspects Tower Hamlets of money laundering, but, having also received hefty fines in recent years for failing to safeguard client assets – and “failing to comply with some of the most elementary auditing standards and procedures” – PwC must have seemed the ideal choice for someone who evidently reckons, like the ancient proverb, that an old poacher makes the best gamekeeper.

These PwC cases are, I suggest, more than mere debating points. The fines – and there are several easily searchable others – were for more serious and hugely more self-profiting misconduct than anything its report finds Tower Hamlets guilty of, and the company’s been violating best practice years longer than Mayor Rahman has been in office.

When the PwC report was published a fortnight ago the immediate response of the mayor and council was that it contained “no evidence of criminality or fraud”.

Unrefuted though it was, Rahman’s use of the F-for-Fraud word was (a) at least questionable, (b) a potential hostage to fortune, and (c) somewhat disingenuous. The questionability is that the report does refer (p.28) to “evidence of possible fraudulent payments” of grants to third-sector organisations (emphasis added), but, with the evidence now in the hands of the police, it is not examined further in the report.

The hostage to fortune is that many, probably most, of the fraud accusations levelled at Rahman concern the conduct not of council business but of elections – particularly his own 2014 mayoral re-election, which he won by only 4% from Labour’s John Biggs – and the investigations into these are still very much ongoing. There’s been a detailed judicial scrutiny of ballot papers, and an election fraud trial will take place in the High Court probably in January.

In relation to PwC’s Best Value Inspection report, the fraud reference is also disingenuous, because, as Rahman obviously knows, fraud is not what Best Value is primarily about.

BV was the concept introduced by New Labour in 1999 to supplant the Thatcher/Major policy of Compulsory Competitive Tendering. A council’s duty of BV is “to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness” (emphases added). The 3Es are quite carefully defined, but “arrangements” aren’t.

The point is, though, that BV is about the existence and satisfactory operation of arrangements and processes. To demonstrate failure to comply, therefore, it isn’t necessary to demonstrate that money has been spent fraudulently, or even in a manner that has failed to achieve an appropriate standard of the 3Es; merely that satisfactory arrangements either haven’t been in place or haven’t operated satisfactorily.

Eric Pickles directed the PwC inspection to focus on the arrangements in four specific areas – those about which there had been most allegations, and essentially those that the commissioners will now take over: payment of grants, transfer of property to third parties, process and practices for entering into contracts, and spending and decisions on publicity.

The PwC report is roughly 200 pages long and by no means a hatchet job. Contracts, for example, were found unproblematic, and publicity received less criticism than Pickles personally would probably have liked.

On the other hand, three of the four property disposals examined were judged BV failures, and grant allocations were found to be all over the place – or rather, the very reverse, disproportionately concentrated on Bangladeshi and Somali groups and areas.

Best Value is a statutory duty and some of PwC’s findings showed serious deficiencies in “arrangements” and processes – much more serious than the mayor at first seemed to acknowledge, as he tried to downplay them as easily remediable “regrettable flaws”.

The really sad thing about this whole affair is the message it sends about local democracy. A Conservative minister, for whom most Tower Hamlets residents would never dream of voting, commissions a report from a bunch of highly-paid professionals, which finds that locally elected politicians have had the temerity to question and even override the advice of more highly paid, unelected officials, probably living outside the borough. And finally, a third set of highly paid unelected officials is sent in to take over. At least some of those voters must surely be wondering why they bothered.

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The Coalition’s mishandling of recall: worse than Baldrick’s war poem

Chris Game

Seeking an arresting phrase to convey the protracted abjectness of the events described in this blog, my first thought was Education Secretary Michael Gove’s  ‘misbegotten shambles’ – his accusatory summary of how certain historians and popular TV programmes like Blackadder have depicted the First World War.

Then I realised Captain Blackadder himself does the job even better in the final ‘Goodbyeee’ episode that probably riles Gove most. Appraising Private Baldrick’s second most famous war poem – not ‘Boom, boom’, but ‘Hear the words I sing, war’s a horrid thing’ – the Captain opines: “Well, it started badly, tailed off a little in the middle, and the less said about the end, the better. But, apart from that, excellent.”  A neat encapsulation, I’d suggest, of the sad story of the Coalition Government’s pledge to give electors the power through petition and election to recall/remove MPs and other public officials before the end of their term of office.

The less said about the pathetic end probably is for the better, but there has to be something. It looked to have arrived when it was widely reported last month that David Cameron and presumably his elections adviser, Lynton Crosbie, had decided that – with two incumbent Tory MPs already deselected and Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, apparently about to escape any significant punishment for claiming over £90,000 in allowances for a second home for her parents – it was time to kill the whole expenses-prompted recall issue by dropping the anyway ineffectual Bill from May’s Queen’s Speech.

This week the PM appeared to have completed a double U-turn, with the announcement that the recall Bill had not been recalled – well, not permanently anyway – and that it may well, or perhaps not, feature in the Queen’s Speech; but, either way, it owed nothing whatever to the Lib Dems.

It’s one more of the Coalition’s lengthening list of political reforms – an elected House of Lords, a smaller House of Commons and reformed electoral system, a House Business Committee, even the promised funding of 200 all-postal open primaries that I blogged about recently – whose actual or seriously contemplated abandonment must, if it were possible, have increased still further public cynicism towards the whole parliamentary system.

Whatever its immediate future, though, MPs’ recall is really only the secondary concern of this blog. My main moan here is the Coalition’s total neglect of the ‘other public officials’ strand – that should by now be in place and applying to at least directly elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, both of which offices would, in my view, have proved more attractive to a suspicious electorate, had a recall provision been part of the package.

Recall, like referendums, citizens’ initiatives and petitions, is an instrument of direct democracy for holding directly elected politicians to account. Put simply, ‘fully participatory recall’ means that the voters who elect someone to public office have the right, between scheduled elections and for any reason, to initiate and vote for their removal. It sounds a laudable principle – possibly even meriting a Blackadder ‘excellent’ – but not just a principle, for that’s essentially how it operates in, for example, around 30 American states, some German Länder, Japan, Switzerland, and British Columbia.

Necessarily, it generates public interest. Take last November’s recall of Mayor Deedy Slaughter (female, if you were wondering) by voters in the smallish Louisiana town of Port Allen. The Mayor had upset residents by, among other allegations, hiring her brother-in-law as chief-of-staff and de facto policy boss, attempting to fire the Chief Finance Officer without City Council approval, and charging to taxpayers her Washington trip for President Obama’s Inauguration. A recall petition was launched, and signed by well over the required one-third of registered voters; 57% of the 63% turnout in the ensuing election voted for recall, and the Mayor was ousted from office by the same people who had voted her in.

It’s undeniably democracy, but clearly the very idea scares the pants off many of our MPs, who, even in the wreckage of their collective expenses scandal, were never going to vote for that much of it. Nor, more seriously, despite what some idealistic reformers imagined, was there ever any real chance of their being asked to. For, like Baldrick’s poem, our very approach to recall started badly, in two distinct ways: one unfortunate but understandable, the other just depressing.

The unfortunate one, assuming at least some of those involved wanted the thing to work, was not taking advantage of the fact that the politicians whose accountability the recall procedure is best suited to secure are those exercising personal executive powers – like the elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) being promoted in other sections of the Coalition Agreement, both, as it happens, also the subject of recent INLOGOV blogs.

Both these imported posts would always have been hard to sell to a disengaged and disenchanted electorate – even supposing the Government had bothered to mount serious information campaigns. But, judging from my own limited involvement with both issues, I feel some of people’s genuine worries about the accountability and removability of these new powerful office holders could have been mollified by the existence of credible and participatory recall mechanisms.

Given how the whole concern with recall had arisen out of the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal, it was inevitable that recall of MPs would get legislative priority. But it would not have been difficult to publicise the Government’s intention that elected mayors and PCCs would be subject to similar recall accountability – as opposed to tucking it away on page 9 of a Localism Bill impact assessment.

Certainly it would not have been difficult, having opted to legislate for MPs’ recall first, to make a better fist of it. Indeed, as we’ll see below, the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s view was that it would have been preferable to have produced nothing at all. That’s how depressing it was.

Much was made at the time of all three main parties’ 2010 manifestos supporting a right of recall; much less of the accompanying qualifications. For Labour it would apply only to MPs found responsible for financial misconduct (undefined); for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it would be for proven “serious wrongdoing” (undefined).

From the outset, therefore, it was clear it would offer at most ‘mixed recall’, with voters’ involvement having to be triggered by someone else defining and proving the misconduct, wrongdoing, or whatever. And the ‘someone elses’, of course, would be the accused’s fellow MPs. The intended purpose of recall – empowering voters to hold MPs to account – would be turned virtually upside down. Yes, recall is a serious business and there should be safeguards, but not a parliamentary filter.

Apart from promising “early legislation”, the Coalition Agreement simply tidied up the manifesto pledges. Public confidence in our shamed parliamentarians was to be restored through what might be termed ‘late-in-the-day participatory recall’, “allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents.” (p.27).

The bad start was followed by the ‘tailing off a little in the middle’, or the draft Bill. Its many deficiencies included seeing recall as an instrument of discipline rather than democracy, and ‘serious wrongdoing’, without ever attempting to define it, as more concerned with prison sentences than abuse of position, breach of parliamentary privilege, nepotism, racism, cheating, lying and indolence. Its chief virtue was to offer a target for pre-legislative scrutiny, some of which was pleasingly robust, like that of the Commons P&CR Committee (p.3).

“Under the Government’s proposals, constituents themselves would not be able to initiate a recall petition. The circumstances that would trigger a petition – if an MP received a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, or if the Commons resolved that there [had been] ‘serious wrongdoing’ – are so narrow that petitions would seldom, if ever, take place.

“We are not convinced these proposals will increase public confidence in politics. Indeed, we fear that the restricted form of recall proposed could even reduce confidence by creating expectations that are not fulfilled.”

So misconceived and irredeemable was the Bill considered by some genuine reformers, like the Commons Committee, that they almost welcomed last month’s anticipated demise. As would I, were it not for my concern that any prospects of proper participatory recall for elected mayors, councillors, and Police and Crime Commissioners would have been even further postponed too.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

City deals: A missed opportunity?

Martin Stott

Today is the deadline for the submission of the second round of ‘City Deals’.  Twenty cities and city regions are putting proposals to DCLG based around four ambitious objectives to:

    • Boost local economic growth
    • Rebalance the economy spatially and sectorally
    • Decentralise the powers and levers cities need to drive local economic growth and
    • Strengthen their governance and leadership

When they were originally announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a speech in Leeds in December 2011, City Deals were part of the carrot to encourage large cities to opt for elected mayors. Devolution of major new powers and budgets to new city leaders were promised. Unfortunately with the exception of Bristol, the electorates didn’t play ball. But DCLG pressed on and the deals were announced in July 2012, with Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield – thereby ironically, cutting the new mayor in Bristol, George Ferguson (who wasn’t elected until November 2012), out of the process. At the time of the DPM’s announcement, there was a sense that this might be a real and significant constitutional change, in tandem with the arrival of the new city mayors. But between the launch speech and the reality of policy on the ground, things became a lot more prosaic, as the agreements struck in 2012 lay bare.

As ever with central-local government relations, the reality has in no way matched the original hype and  in a time of retrenchment generally and ever smaller budgets for local government in particular, DCLG have been in no position to  provide anything very much in the way of new resources. Staff in Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships (who are key players in the proposed new ‘city deals’ because of their focus on private sector led economic growth) comment that ‘there is no real money in it’, and that the process and likely outcome is similar to that seen in the negotiation of Local Public Service Agreements (LPSA) and the abortive ‘Total Place’ initiatives under the last Government.

There is one striking difference between city deals and LPSA’s, picked up by the Green Alliance in their report Green Cities; using city deals to drive low carbon growth. Whereas LPSAs all had a climate change/green economy strand in them, the city deals struck with the ‘big eight’ cities have this dimension largely as an add-on, if that. The Green Alliance found that only Leeds framed its approach to growth with a low carbon vision for the city and that apart from Newcastle, few deals acknowledged the role of tackling climate change in securing resilient economic growth. Bristol, a city whose image has been predicated on an at least vaguely greenish tinge, has a City Deal that makes no mention of the subject.

Now the programme is being extended to a ‘second wave’ of twenty localities from ‘Sunderland and the North East’ to Plymouth. The group is made up of the 14 next largest English cities (after the ‘big eight’) plus a further six – such as Greater Cambridge and Milton Keynes – which recorded the highest population growth between 2001 and 2010.  One of the striking aspects of this group of cities – the smaller and fast growing ones – is that they in many cases already have a significant ‘green economy’ dimension, or are cities whose location  brings opportunities waiting to be exploited, such as Hull and Teeside. But if the poor record of the first round of City Deals is any kind of baseline – and with the second round of city deals focussing on a single initiative rather than a range of measures – the prognosis for more than a handful ending up taking advantage of this crucial part of the ‘rebalancing’ of the UK economy looks pretty bleak.


Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.

Bristol: The Start of an Independents Revolution?

Martin Stott

As the only city to hold a mayoral referendum last May and vote in favour, Bristol confirmed its reputation as a city that marches to the beat of a different drum. The mayoral election in November reinforced this maverick status with electors decisively (albeit on a turnout of only 27.9%) electing Independent candidate George Ferguson as Mayor.

The idea of elected mayors has been around for over a decade, one imported uncritically from the US and grafted onto the existing system of local government here. Catherine Durose in her blog ‘Elected mayors: the wrong solution to the wrong problem’ argues that seeing elected mayors as the solution to the ‘democratic deficit’ is wrong. It certainly hasn’t fired up voters, with nine out of the ten cities conducting referenda in May rejecting them –  as they did when asked during earlier attempts by New Labour to introduce the concept outside London.

Durose is right in observing that almost all the elected mayors that do exist are already mainstream politicians (ex-MPs or council leaders) and this makes Bristol’s choice more interesting. George Ferguson is a colourful architect and entrepreneur with a track record in making things happen, including the Tobacco Factory in Southville, a multi-use regeneration project that includes café, bistro, apartments and a theatre. Despite his history  a Liberal Democrat – he only resigned from the party in May –  Ferguson stood as an Independent and won decisively, beating the favourite, Labour’s Marvin Rees, by 37,353 (54.4%) to 31,259 (46.6%)  on the second round. He also led by a substantial margin in the first round.

One of the interesting aspects of the result is just how badly the three main parties did, obtaining  between them, just 45% of the vote in the first round. The Bristol Post described Ferguson as making ‘mincemeat of the three major parties’.  While this appears to be true, it is also a reflection of the profound disconnect between party politics and the voter, expressed nationally in the very low turnout for Police and Crime Commissioners on the same day  – as does the election of 12 independent candidates as PCCs.

In Bristol, Labour claimed afterwards that Ferguson won because the Tory and Lib Dem vote collapsed. This is partly true – neither of them even managed 10%, but it begs questions about Labour’s ability to connect with and energise voters too. There was a distinct split across the city in terms of turn out, with relatively high percentages in middle class areas like Henlease (43%), Clifton, Redland, Bishopston, Windmill Hill and Westbury-on-Trym but really poor turn outs in Labour strongholds like Southmead, St George, Filwood and Hartcliffe (11%). The result of the mayoral election may have been important to the Labour Party, but its voters don’t seem to have agreed.

Four days before the vote, Ferguson held an ‘Independents gathering’ in the Tobacco Factory theatre. The audience, numbering well over 100, was surprisingly large for a Monday afternoon event.  With him on the stage were Independent veteran ex-MP Martin Bell, independent candidates from Liverpool and London and Independent PCC candidate for Avon and Somerset Sue Mountstevens. Bell, though very supportive, clearly thought that like the Liverpool and London independents, Ferguson and Mountstevens were going to be another pair of plucky losers. By the end of the week both had won, Mountstevens with the largest PCC mandate in the country, and Ferguson humiliating all the mainstream political parties. We may yet record that ‘the march of the independents’ started out in Bristol.

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.

Whose budget is it – the mayor’s or the council’s?

Chris Game

Earlier in the year, during the mayoral referendum debates, I remember using the example of North Tyneside to illustrate how the constant attempts to compare our elected mayors with those in the US were seriously misleading, as ours had and would have considerably more constrained powers than their American counterparts.

Budget-setting was one example I had in mind.  Technically it’s a ‘co-decision’ power shared with the full council, which, if it can assemble a two-thirds majority, can amend or reject an elected mayor’s proposed budget and the council’s other policy framework documents.  That’s what happened this year in three existing mayoral authorities – Hartlepool, North Tyneside and Doncaster – but whether all the voting councillors grasped fully the process they were engaged in seems unlikely.

Hartlepool’s mayor is Stuart Drummond, erstwhile football mascot, but elected three times now as an Independent against all other parties.  He’s never had a majority of supporters on the council, but, with a cross-party cabinet, has managed to govern effectively and generally peaceably.  Not this year, though.

Labour cabinet members, having agreed a budget containing proposals that included the controversial privatisation of the council’s IT services, were evidently pressured by their party colleagues and failed to attend, and therefore vote in, the relevant full council meeting.  The mayor lost his budget, was saddled with Labour’s alternative, and, not surprisingly, removed the mutineers from his cabinet.

North Tyneside’s mayor is Conservative Linda Arkley.  She governs with an entirely Conservative cabinet, although her party is and was in a minority on the council.  In fact, back in March, Labour (34) and the Lib Dems (6) could muster, just, the two-thirds of votes necessary on the 60-seat council to reject her budget – which they did.

The mayor, therefore, was forced to accept a budget containing the opposition parties’ alternative proposals.  These included scrapping above-inflation increases in fees for allotments, sports facilities and bowling greens, and freezing the price of school dinners and meals-on-wheels, but also measures delivering savings aimed at obviating the need for the mayor’s mass outsourcing strategy: axing the post of chief executive, asking high-earning staff to accept a voluntary 10% pay cut, and all council staff to take a one-hour reduction in working hours.

It’s at this point that understandable confusion can arise, even among councillors, over the respective roles and powers of mayor and council.  Indeed, ‘whose budget is it?’ is one of the many issues that could usefully have been addressed in the public information campaign that ministers ought to have seen as their responsibility to mount in the run up to the mayoral referendums.

‘The budget’ in this context means the key figures proposed, in a mayoral authority, by the mayor and cabinet: revenue expenditure for the coming year on various services and projects, and sources of income to cover this expenditure, including the real biggie, the level of council tax.  The full council’s role is to approve the mayor’s framework or, with the requisite two-thirds majority, substitute an agreed alternative.  Even in the latter circumstances, though, implementation of the budget is the mayor’s job – necessarily, as the framers of the Local Government Act 2000 saw it in their guidance to local authorities.

“Once the budget has been adopted, the executive will need to be able to respond quickly to changing circumstances, which might require reallocation of funds from one service to another.  A local authority’s financial regulations will need, therefore, to allow the executive to reallocate monies within the budget [or] take any decision contrary to or not wholly in accordance with the budget, providing that any additional costs incurred can be offset by additional income, contingency funds, or savings from elsewhere within the budgetary allocations“.

The phraseology may sound sloppy, but it does indicate where the 2000 Act intended to draw the line between the mayor/executive and the full council.  The full council’s role is to make financial provision for the spending proposed in the budget, not to determine, let alone micro-manage, its content.

When the Act forbids the mayor/executive from acting “contrary to, or not wholly in accordance with, the budget“, it should be taken as referring to the total budgetary allocation, not to any detailed items.  Spending contrary to the budget is OK, providing it can be covered within the agreed total.  Logically, therefore, not spending on something specified in the budget must also be OK.

This latter situation is what they’ve been arguing about in Doncaster, and, if the role division in the 2000 Act wasn’t previously clear enough, we now, following a constitutionally significant Administrative Court case concerning the town’s libraries, have it on judicial authority.

Doncaster’s elected mayor is Peter Davies, an English Democrat, who chairs a Conservative-Lib Dem cabinet in a 64-member council, 50 of whom are Labour.  Arithmetically it’s not a formula for unalloyed harmony, and there isn’t much, especially where libraries are concerned.

Despite reportedly never having borrowed a public library book himself, the mayor’s library strategy aims to improve the town’s service: better stocked libraries opening for longer hours, in improved buildings in convenient locations – but just not so many of them and more reliant on volunteers.  That’s the problem – the closures, two of which had already happened.

The mayor’s draft budget incorporated the library proposals and was approved by 43 to 6 in full council, but with a significant amendment, allocating funds to re-open the closed libraries and retain the staff required to run the 12 others.  The mayor, however, stuck with his strategy.  There were no re-openings, and a local resident, back by the Save Our Libraries campaign, applied successfully for judicial review.

The review itself, though, was less successful, except in the cause of constitutional clarification.  The pleasingly named Judge Gary Hickinbottom doesn’t do nuance: “It would be a remarkable invasion of the executive function of the Mayor if, as part of the budgetary process, the full Council could interfere and reverse such an executive decision by amending the budget to give, not only an allocation of funds for the library service, but a direction that funds must be spent and spent precisely in accordance with the direction that they have made“.

Back in North Tyneside, the council’s Labour-Lib Dem majority – now four-fifths following the May elections – must feel similarly thwarted.  The invitations to those earning over £50,000 to accept a voluntary pay cut were more and less politely declined, and – surprise, surprise! – the unions weren’t terribly keen on the reduced working hours for all staff, so that too bit the dust.

Now the Council has announced the outcome of the key partner procurement phase of the mayor’s Change, Efficiency and Improvement – or mass outsourcing – programme.  Two hefty blocks of services – a Business Package, comprising finance, procurement, revenues and benefits, ICT, customer services, and human resources – and a Technical Package, comprising property services, planning, engineering, consumer protection, and environmental health – have been let respectively to Balfour Beatty and Capita Symonds on potentially 15-year contracts.

Coming within days of Local Government Association Chairman Sir Merrick Cockell‘s warning to councils of the dangers of having a blind faith in the virtues of outsourcing, and of becoming commissioners rather than providers of services, Mayor Arkley’s announcement might have been better timed.  But, as they say, that’s for another day.  The subject here is not what mayors do, but the incontrovertible legality with which they do it.


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.