What next for Elected Mayors? Localism Catch-22

Boris Johnson may have won the Mayoral race in London, however the rest of England didn’t take to a “Boris for every city”. Nine out of ten cities participating in the coalition’s referenda on directly elected mayors (May 3) rejected the idea; only Bristol backed the proposals.  The referenda were also overshadowed by poor turnout rates with an average of 28.8% across the country and only 24% in Bristol. Given that localism is one of the coalition’s main drives, what next for the government’s credentials in this area?

The proposed “Mayors Cabinet” will unlikely go ahead now, but the mayoral agenda will certainly not end here. Liverpool and Bristol will “flaunt” their mayors to influence national policy as London has done in the last decade[1]. The coalition will do likewise to save face and rejuvenate their localism strategy. Other cities therefore may find themselves wishing for mayors and they don’t have to wait on another national referendum. Let’s not forget that Liverpool, Salford, Doncaster and Leicester have all appointed mayors in the last year through local referenda or local council agreement. The “big-bang” reform the coalition hoped for hasn’t quite happened but change is still likely to creep along. One idea gaining traction is “metro mayors”, which would look after transport, planning and policing across city-regional travel-to-work areas (an idea Lord Adonis will discuss at a Constitution Unit seminar on May 22). [2]

The low turnout raises deeper questions on public enthusiasm for localism. With only 28.8% of people voting nationally, can the government carry localism forward? Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are due to be elected on 15 November, whose credibility will be questioned on a 10-20% turnout. Localism has good devolutionary intent but people need to feel involved. Citizens should have had a hand in shaping mayors’ roles before the referenda and we cannot be surprised that people voted against an office they did not call for with undefined powers, pay and job description.

Ultimately, the coalition has tried to provide the groundwork for a system few are yet interested in using and found themselves in a Catch-22 situation. How does one force localism from the top? To continue driving the localism agenda forward the government needs to gain this hard-face experience, and refocus on facilitating rather than imposing policy. Elected mayors may have a future yet, but it now lies in the hands of local communities rather than Westminster.

Tony Travers: New Localism

Last night Professor Tony Travers examined the ideas behind the Coalition’s New Localism agenda, exploring how it might work and what it could entail. Much of the New Localism agenda can be seen in the Localism Bill. While some of the elements are not particularly ‘localist’, such as more Directly Elected Mayors or the creation of Police Commissioners, many of the plans seek to distribute ‘power’ away from ‘County or Town halls’ by giving community or street groups control of local services, local planning or the ability to initiate local referenda. Here the ‘New Localism’ agenda meets the ‘big society’.

Yet there exists questions over its newness, the capacity of bodies to do the work and over the transfer of risk.

This agenda is not as ‘new’ as it seems. Many authorities already operate through a ‘plurality’ of groups. From Business Improvement Districts, to ‘single service institutions’ such as houses near a park paying extra for its upkeep, this type of ‘street level’ or community provision already exists.

Nor is it certain the charities, NGOs and other bodies who reformers hope take up the reins are able or willing to do so. Some bodies wish to remain small and lack the capacity to take on a service. There is also a question of motivation. While ‘enlightened self interest’ is the best motivator this may only hold for particular issues.

The final concern is that of risk. If a local authority remains statutorily responsible for a service, where does risk go? And can an authority transfer it? While an authority may be able to assist if a community run library collapses, the loss of a valuable service, such as one dealing with children, is far more problematic. Within this issue is that of blame: will an authority still be held responsible even when services are passed to others?

The New Localism reforms may improve capacity at local level and ‘give’ power back to ‘the community’. They may, on the other hand, lead to a fracturing of local arrangements and increased power for central government. The difficulty for all involved is that it depends on the public to make and shape the New Localism, so we can have no real idea of what it will look like until it arrives.