Comment: We can learn from the mayors we have

By Liam Scott-Smith

"One of the problems with the political process is that people do feel disempowered, shut out from it. We have therefore got to be imaginative about how we bring decision-making closer to them. The government is committed to giving local authorities greater freedom and wider responsibilities. With this needs to come strong and accountable local leadership."

This point comes straight from the coalition playbook and has been well advanced in the build-up to May 3rd. They talk of course about the policy for elected mayors and the ten cities who have a referendum on whether to adopt the model. The common consensus is that a handful will say yes but the majority will reject. The most likely yes voter will be Birmingham and the national media has tracked this race, paying close attention to the runners and riders.

So which coalition minister made the above comment? Well, it may surprise you to know that it wasn't a coalition minister, it wasn't even a comment made in this parliament. The quote belongs to Tony Blair and was made in 2006 at a New Local Government Network event held for mayors at No 10. The point being that the elected mayors agenda isn't new. There are ten directly elected mayors out there now and have been doing the job for the best part of decade.

The government should acknowledge and utilise the experience of the existing mayors as they will have valuable lessons to share. This counts doubly since David Cameron has recently announced that he will be establishing a cabinet of city mayors. Bringing together the new mayors with the existing ones makes sense. Especially if as we anticipate that only a few cities vote for a mayor, it wouldn't be much of cabinet if only two got through.

Perhaps most interestingly government has begun to deliver on the city deal promise. Manchester has secured quite a reasonable settlement from Whitehall. Why interesting? Because Manchester hasn't got a mayor and despite the referendum the city is unlikely to vote for one. Originally the city deal concept was tied very closely to the idea of having an elected mayor. The argument being that only a single individual imbued with the mandate of direct election could wield such power, clearly the argument has been considerably weakened by the Manchester example as government is now willing to negotiate without a mayor. Perhaps a lesson to other cities than with the right amount of leverage they too don't necessarily have to have a mayor to cut a deal.

Fundamentally though the government is investing a large amount of political capital in the idea that city mayors will be a major catalyst for growth and local political renewal. Tapping into a bit of the existing wisdom out there from the pioneers of the elected mayoral model would be a risk free first step to ensuring a return on that investment.

Liam Scott-Smith is head of external affairs for the New Local Government Network.

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