Ten years ago as chair of the Governance Subcommittee of the Council I oversaw the Liverpool consultation about having an elected mayor. In spite of spending more than £400,000 on the process the number of people who commented was derisory (less than 2,000). This confirmed my earnest belief that very few people care about governance – they just wanted to get services delivered efficiently and for the needs of their community to be met.
Since then much has happened to prove me correct in my other assertion that the mayoral system was contrary to the culture of good local government in this country and would fail. I had not anticipated just how right that would be.
Firstly let’s look at the public’s reaction to Mayors. In total 12 local government mayors have been created. Almost twice as many referendums were lost and the ideas did not proceed. This disdain from the public can be seen in Liverpool where there were at one time two campaigns to get a Liverpool Mayor yet between them they could not get 5% of the population to sign up to a simple petition.
Secondly, thank goodness that we did not proceed with mayors because on average their track record has been poor.
Two of the councils with mayors – Stoke and Doncaster – have consistently been the worst two councils in England. One – Torbay is now going through major governance problems; a situation which persisted for 4 years in North Tyneside although this has now been rectified. One, Bedford, was led by an Independent mayor and was in severe financial difficulties until rescued by a by-election which brought the town into Lib Dem hands. Stoke has already voted to abolish its mayoral system and has returned to a Leader system – Doncaster will surely do so as soon as the law allows a vote.
If the overall pattern of local government had been as bad as this any central government would probably have abolished local government – I might not have objected! Of course councils led by Mayors like Jules Pipe in Hackney and Dorothy Thornhill in Watford have dramatically improved their councils but not by more than the average improvement in councils as a whole.
Quite simply the mayoral experiment has not worked.
“Ah”, someone says, “What about London?” Well what is the London Mayor? London is actually an English region so the Mayor of London is the equivalent of the Mayor of the North West. That’s not on offer. London is a conurbation but a Mayor for Merseyside is not on offer either. What’s on offer is a Mayor for Liverpool alone. So would he be first amongst equals with the other 5 Merseyside authorities with extra powers that they do not have? How we would he interact as a supreme authority in Liverpool for community safety issues with an elected police commissioner with powers for all of the other Merseyside authorities.
When I was in No 10 (I do like saying that!) at the beginning of November I was asked what new powers should be given to areas to make them vote for a mayor. The answer was none. If more powers should be given to councils they should be given to all councils. That is what localism is all about. Within days we will have had two Bills relating to Policing and Decentralisation which will significantly hand new powers to councils. Licensing and planning will be much more for councillors and their communities to decide than inspectors and courts. I believe that the localism agenda as a whole from the government is a good one. Let’s get on with delivering that localism and dealing with the severe financial problems that the government as a whole faces. Let’s not get side tracked by failed ideas that will divert our attention from the much more important jobs that we need to do in straitened times.