Government hopes of seeing local government led by strong, highly visible and
outward-looking elected mayors have met with only partial success according to a
report published today. The study finds that while community leadership has been
a priority for some elected mayors, others have put more emphasis on negotiating
The study of the impact of new governance structures introduced by the Local
Government Act 2000 has been produced for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by
researchers at De Montfort and Warwick universities.
They found that while some local political leaders have been able to pursue
long-term strategic objectives, others have had a handful of disconnected
priorities. At the same time, unforeseen priorities that have emerged since Act
have sometimes diverted mayors and other leaders from an outward to an inward
focus. The researchers cite especially the need to prepare for, or respond to,
the Comprehensive Performance Assessment.
The report concludes that the emphasis on structures and ‘strong leadership’ in
debates about local governance has been too narrow and it says differences in
local political contexts and the skills of political leaders are crucial to
understanding why new structures have led to such diverse approaches.
The researchers used case studies, a leadership skills survey and in-depth
interviews with politicians, managers and external partners to study the impact
of changes on four key leadership tasks. They found that maintaining a critical
mass of political support remained a high priority for most leaders, despite the
Government’s emphasis on other leadership tasks. Politically affiliated mayors
could have a more relaxed and arm’s length relationship with their party group
while leaders, needing to be re-elected annually, saw their priority as
maintaining good relations within their group and, in hung councils, between
On strategic policy direction the priorities of non-mayoral leaders typically
reflected the content of the most recent local party manifesto but mayors,
especially those that were independent, were less constrained. Strategy-based
leadership was more feasible in mayoral authorities and in those with elections
every four years.
The priority given to working with Local Strategic and other partnerships varied
with some leaders delegating the role to a colleague or to the chief executive.
Elected mayors paid more attention to sustaining or enhancing public support.
The study found that political leaders used a range of means to chase progress
on issues that concerned them. Some did this personally and others delegated the
task to a cabinet colleague or political adviser. In the most effective cases
leaders and chief executives worked together to manage this potentially
difficult area well.
Professor Jean Hartley of the Institute of Governance and Public Management at
Warwick Business School – co-author of the report with Professor Steve Leach
from the Department of Public Policy at De Montfort – said the study showed how
constitutions, context and capabilities interacted to give a more complex
picture of what constituted effective political leadership than was previously
thought to exist.