A confusion of Mayors?

What’s an appropriate term for a number of mayors – say in Salford, which may have a metro mayor, an elected city mayor and a ceremonial mayor – a collection, an assembly, an assortment? Hopefully, though, not a confusion of mayors? But how to avoid it? Asks Janet Sillett

We know we are now firmly in the era of super mayors – metro mayors and elected mayors maybe even in county areas. There will be debate and arguments, amendments and negotiations, but mayors of combined authorities are on the cards beyond Greater Manchester. We can (and should) make the case that devolution should mean no one size fits all and imposing one form of governance regardless of the particular circumstances isn’t terribly democratic, but even if more flexibility emerges from the parliamentary process of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, there are still (and possible more) complex questions around accountability, scrutiny and transparency, as a patchwork of different arrangements, such as city deals and integrated care, takes shape.

The voice of residents hasn’t been heard much so far. How can local people, council partners in the voluntary and private sector and backbench councillors be involved in the shaping of new ways of working, and in monitoring and scrutiny of it?

Firstly it’s not easy to be involved, even consulted, if it isn’t clear who is making decisions and who is accountable for them. Are the priorities for devolved functions being consulted on? Where are strategies being agreed, who is responsible for what on a more day to day level? How are resources being shared, especially when they are scarce? Who sets the overall vision? Where is the balance of power between the different leaders/mayors within a combined authority area?

One of the strongest justifications for having an elected mayor of these wider authorities is that they are a visible leader, elected democratically, that can drive change and be held accountable. This must be inherently more democrat than a centralised system, but it doesn’t remove the need for transparency and additional accountability. Democracy doesn’t stop with an election.

Mayors (and other forms of new arrangements) need to be held accountable within the new authority and to the outside world. The mayor will be part of the cabinet of a combined authority and be accountable to it, but that’s surely not enough. The Bill sets out how overview and scrutiny will work – so it is more of the same really. Scrutiny can be very successful but it isn’t always, and shouldn’t we be thinking a bit more radically? Jessica Crowe, former Chief Executive, of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, suggested a local PAC. A committee with real clout and a high profile – to hold powerful politicians to account requires powerful mechanisms to do so.

Does anyone remember when subsidiarity was ‘the thing’? It isn’t much used as a word now – too European-speak maybe – but it is worth reminding ourselves of from time to time: decisions being taken as close as possible to the people they affect. Devolution is subsidiarity at work from the centre to localities, but it must go beyond that. And there is always a danger it could take power upwards when it needs to devolve down – to local areas and communities. The new mayors will be powerful – it is crucial that they are not seen as keeping that power to themselves – narrowing democracy not enhancing it.

The prime rationale for devolution seems to be to promote growth by maximising the strengths of local and regional people and places. But it also needs to be seen to improve lives at the local level and to boost democracy; ensuring that communities are involved and consulted, that there is transparency and understanding, that local people and councillors can challenge and scrutinise.

LGiU set out the principles of sound devolution in Public Finance – here. I would add maximum transparency, strong scrutiny, public understanding and challenge. Then it can be an accomplishment of mayors.

Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s Briefings Manager.

Photo Credit: Khairil Zhafri via Compfight cc

    1. Ronen Basu says:

      We have one mayor for our Borough of Tunbridge Wells who looks after and promote the interest of our borough.
      In my view this is a very important role and should continue.

      1. Janet Sillett says:

        I agree that where there are civic mayors and the council and residents support them they should continue – they are completely difference from any elected mayor.

    2. Janet Sillett says:

      Except in some places they may have three mayors – a metro combined authority mayor, an elected city mayor and a ceremonial one? Though I suppose both elected mayors could be part of the executive mayoralty.

    3. Tim Moore says:

      Executive Mayor – the main difference is their executive power, and their democratic accountability. The Executive Mayoralty? For the minor ones The Ceremonial Mayoralty?

    4. Cllr Geoffrey Watt says:

      Sheriffs? How about a posse?

      1. Janet Sillett says:

        Sounds very American. That will please my colleague Ingrid who is American and likes mayors..

    5. I consider the main point about having a Mayor, is to make sure that you get a wise, active and generally expert one. How do you do this, certainly not by an election where any tom, dick or harry can be wrapped in political colours and pushed forward. Then he may be just a puppet. Who controls an elected Mayor? Surely not by referenda. I don’t know how they do it in the States but some of the actions of Mayors over there are outlandish. How do you get rid of them. Wait for three years while they mess up the city. With this my limited understanding, I am not in favour of Mayors. Can someone put me right please?

      1. Ingrid Koehler says:

        Sure, Michael, some of the actions of mayors in the US are really outlandish. And yes, sometimes the answer to that is suffering through another 3 years or whatever. Referenda can be an answer. I wrote earlier this year about outlandish mayors in Tennessee – one of whom was deposed in about a month. Cabinet systems can sustain outlandish behaviour, too.

    6. Dan Filson says:

      The London borough Mayors often referred to themselves as the chain gang.

    7. Cllr Geoff Austin says:

      Surely, it’s always been known as ‘A Chain Gang of Mayors’

      1. Janet Sillett says:

        I hadn’t heard of this but now two of you have mentioned it it must be true – seems a good name to me…

    8. Councillor Ken Meeson says:

      I agree that a ‘one size fits all’ system would not be in the national interest. When it comes to Combined Authorities we need flexibility to provide the best solution and structure that will maximise the economic development within regions. Whilst a Metro Mayor may be appropriate for a compact collection of Metropolitan Borough forming a defined and cohesive conurbation, it would not be acceptable where the CA comprises a raft of Metropolitan, City, County and District Councils, as being proposed across the West Midlands and covering the three current LEPs (Black Country, Coventry & Warwickshire and the Birmingham and Solihull LEP (which already includes successful District Councils in parts of Staffordshire and Worcestershire).

      1. Janet Sillett says:

        I very much agree. And flexibility is what the LGiU has been arguing for. With such different geographies, communities, cultures and economic circumstances there are really no two areas that are the same (and with plenty of diversity within areas too). Maybe we should look outside the UK for evidence that devolution can work by reflecting the hugely varied situations, needs and aspirations of all parts of England and Wales and not imposing a rigid blueprint for what is devolved, how it is devolved and the governance arrangements that underpin it. My main point was that accountability, transparency and challenge are critical to all the arrangements that develop – having a powerful mayor is one of them but having strong, democratic and accountable governance isn’t dependent on a mayor.

    9. Ken Smith says:

      The london Mayors and surrey Mayores when in a group are smilingly called the Chain gang.

      1. Eric Firth says:

        I know the issues about elected mayors is a a real issue, As for the collective noun for civic Mayors it’s a Magnificence

        1. Janet Sillett says:

          Which is a splendid name – for civic mayors anyway. Now you remind me I think I do know that term. There may be one for Sheriffs too?

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