Headlines: April 24th, 2008

The Government is being urged to introduce elected mayors in every major town and city in England to encourage central government to decentralise more powers to local government. The call comes from the Institute for Public Policy Research which also believes that more mayors would also result in stronger local political leadership and clearer accountability.

Research by the Institute shows that England’s experience of mayors, in places including London, Hartlepool and Hackney, has been positive. Mayors have proved highly capable leaders overseeing an improvement in the performance of their councils and developing innovative policies. It argues that more towns and cities with mayors would have the potential to reinvigorate local politics.

Although the Government recognises the benefits of mayors, the current system is biased against introducing them. A referendum to elect a mayor can only be triggered either by a majority vote from councillors or a petition signed by five per cent of constituents. Since powerful local government voices have opposed mayors, because of anxieties about possible threats to their own influence, very few councils pushed for them. Where referendums have been held, local politicians have often led campaigns against them. Since 2002 just 13 mayors have been created.

A factor working against the creation of more mayors is that Ministers are reluctant to devolve powers because they fear being blamed for policy failures and delivery problems they aren’t directly responsible for. The Institute claims that a visible and well known mayor could address this fear by providing greater political accountability and clearly defined executive responsibility. Once in place mayors could encourage ministers to devolve more powers to the locality.

The Institute argues that mayors should be created in all unitary and metropolitan district councils as well as in other councils in urban areas such as Oxford.