The Secretary of State has considerable powers to trigger a mayoral referendum under the Localism Act.
He will make immediate use of his ability to ‘require every authority or a particular description of authority to hold a referendum on whether to adopt a particular form of governance’, by making orders for mayoral referendums in the eleven largest English cities, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Wakefield, Coventry, Nottingham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Leicester, originally included in a group of 12, has since elected a mayor.
Following strong and widely expressed objections, the government made considerable concessions on this part of the Bill, abandoning its proposal that existing council leaders be transformed into shadow mayors in the pre-referendum period. It also backed down on proposals that would have combined the roles of elected mayor and chief executive.
Transfer of powers to elected mayors using new general power of Secretary of State
A third regulatory power – making it possible to transfer local public service functions to an elected mayor – was abandoned, but the government is able to use another delegation power, introduced into the Act in the Lords, which gives the Secretary of State power to transfer local public functions to any local authority outside London, to promise power to the newly-appointed mayors.
The government is currently consulting until 3 January 2012 in the 11 authority areas and in Leicester on this basis in an exercise entitled, What can a mayor do for your city?
Under the Act, proposals must promote economic development or wealth creation or increase local accountability in relation to the function. Separate negotiations with eight ‘core cities’, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield and their Local Enterprise Partnerships, between city representatives and the government, are also reported.
No promises of delegation of powers are made in these negotiations, which will “culminate in both sides agreeing a deal about how best to deliver positive outcomes to take advantage of economic opportunities in the city regions”.
Other aspects of Mayor and cabinet executives
Elected mayors will decide the number of councillors to appoint to the executive. The mayor will also appoint one of the executive members to be his or her deputy, who – subject to their holding office and retaining the confidence of the mayor – will hold office for the same period as the mayor. In the absence of the elected mayor and deputy, the executive, or a member of the executive, will act in their place.
The initial Impact Assessment (January 2011) based its estimate of costs on the Tower Hamlets mayoral referendum in the autumn of 2010. On this basis, and on assumption that 12 authorities would hold referendums costs to the authorities were estimated as £2.6m, with two cycles of mayoral elections over a ten-year period estimated as £9m. Should all original 12 referendums produce a yes result, the total would be £15.9m. The Impact Assessment also considered potential savings from the mayoral model, but did not fully consider the cost of support that would be required by an executive mayor. There was little evidence on which to base a reliable assessment of the effectiveness of the mayoral model in England. It is not known whether a further Impact Assessment will be considered necessary.
Expected timetable for introduction of elected mayors in 11 English cities*
|Nov 2011:||Localism Act received Royal assent|
|‘shortly after’||Orders made in respect of the 11 cities|
|May 2012||Referendums held scheduled with local government elections and the London mayoral election|
|‘shortly after’||Mayoral elections in any of 11 cities where there is a ‘yes’ vote – held via electoral system for existing mayors – supplementary vote|
|May 2012 onwards||Mayoral referendums may be held in other local authorities. Regulations will reduce the threshold for instigating mayoral referendums to 1 per cent of the electorate in large cities and conurbations.|
|To be confirmed||Government introduces recall mechanism for elected mayors alongside similar provisions for other public officials|
*LGiU estimates based on programme for implementation given in Impact Assessment Jan 2011, revisions to Bill and Plain English Guide to Localism Act Nov 2011
Mayoral arrangements – specific commentary
In their final form the plans for mayoral referendums in the largest English cities will result in similar outcomes to previous referendum exercises. Yet despite the abandonment of the government’s more radical plans it is unlikely that the future of elected mayoral arrangements can be considered as settled. This most recent legislation reflects a frustration on the part of central government (of all political parties) at the lack of take-up of local mayors. Much will depend on the outcome of the 11 referendums to be held in 2012: a high proportion of confirmatory decisions are likely to lead to a further round of compulsory referendums in other English cities. A low adoption of the mayoral model can be expected to lead to a further assessment of whether changes to the model will improve the prospects of increasing popular support.
Questions asked by the Institute for Government during research in 2011 included:
1) Will mayors have enough power to make a difference?
2) Will mayors ‘fit’ with current local authority institutions?
3) How will the transition to mayoral governance be managed?
Discussion generated by visits to 10 of the 11 authorities raised issues such as a move to a model comparable with the London model, with the mayor able to appoint externally to key positions rather than ‘grafting’ a mayor onto what was described as a ‘local government model’. It might be expected that numbers and role of councillors in mayoral authorities will come under increasing scrutiny, as will electoral changes. A general change to full council elections and a review of the electoral cycle to make councillor elections coterminous with the mayoral election are also possibilities.
The transition to mayoral governance must include a rigorous assessment of the council’s scrutiny function. It will be particularly important that the scrutiny function is effective and well-supported and able to hold the mayor to account. Experience of scrutiny in councils with elected mayors should be particularly valuable.