Something for the weekend. (On the subject of mayors).

In a long article online the Guardian yesterday asked, “Could directly elected mayors for the largest English cities outside London deliver real change? If they are the answer to the regions’ economic or local democratic problems, what is the question?” The paper spoke, amongst others, to Government Minister Greg Clark who pushes the government line and to former cabinet minister Lord Adonis.

Here are some bits of what they have to say. You can read the whole article which is by Les Reid here.

Greg Clark said in January: “Today the great challenge before us is one of economic growth, and I’m convinced that the battle for Britain’s prosperity will be won or lost in Britain’s cities … but I believe the evidence also shows that some forms of leadership are better suited than others in helping cities reach their full potential in an increasingly competitive international environment. The world’s great cities have mayors who lead their city on the international stage, attracting investment and jobs.” Agreed.

Lord Adonis says, “There is good evidence mayors are much better known in their localities than leaders of councils. The polling evidence is they’re at least twice as well known. You are more likely to get a leader with a strong popular mandate and a clear plan for the future if they are directly elected, than if they’re chosen by a labarynthine method of indirect election which chooses council leaders at the moment.” Agreed.

And, “There is good evidence that mayors command greater popular recognition. That is an essential precondition for doing so much else in politics – in terms of public engagement, and engaging the public and private sector in pursuit of jobs. It doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get more jobs or new partnerships with the private sector, but it does make it easier.” Agreed.

Clark “What we say very clearly is if governments are going to empower cities, you [councils] need to be confident you’ve got that democratic mandate and you’ve got that leadership. Where cities want to take on significant new powers and funding streams, they will need to demonstrate strong accountable leadership, and cities with a directly elected mayor will meet this requirement. So the question is settled if you have a mayor – but again, it’s over to you.” That is very clear.

Adonis “Birmingham city council has a budget of £4bn a year. It has huge discretion not only in how it spends that money, but on the quality of services it offers. That’s not to say that we aren’t too centralised in this country; we are. But how are you more likely to get decentralisation? By having powerful, well-known, commanding figures running the cities, or by having weak figures that bearly one in four of the electorate recognises?It’s your choice.

Of course the Guardian referenced some naysayers.

“Councils such as Coventry, with almost unanimous cross-party opposition to an elected mayor, point to government policy creating a complicated web of overlapping organisations and structures. Coventry claims it is already demonstrating strong leadership and close partnership between public and private sectors through its LEP.” They would say that wouldn’t they.

“Further opposition to an elected mayor comes on the grounds of the limited checks and balances on the woman or man holding power. A mayor with a four year term could greatly restrict councillors, with elected members requiring a two-thirds majority to veto a mayor’s policies.” We do need to know what powers the mayor will have and be sure that those powers cannot be abused.

And has noticed that with six weeks to go to the referendum there is not much of a public debate going on.

“When the government held a public consultation asking mayoral referendum cities what powers they would like an elected mayor to have it received 58 responses, of which just 19 were from the general public. Even Lord Adonis has identified a “lack of public debate” in eight of the 11 cities. He advised the government to postpone referendums for another year in all but three cities – Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol.”” This change is important but not so urgent that we could not use a bit more time to create more debate.

Birmingham mayoral hopeful Sion Simon, who stood down as a Labour MP to fight his campaign, conceded after knocking thousands of doors that “normal people are not talking about this.” True.

Good stuff.

Here’s the link to the whole article again. Les Reid works on the Coventry Telegraph and is the Midlands Journalist of the Year.

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