I spoke in the Senedd recently on a debate about local democracy. Here’s my thoughts
We need to remember that it was UK Government policy under the New Labour Government that introduced this idea of elected mayors in 2000, and it’s interesting to note that the vast majority of elected mayors are and have been Labour mayors. The Conservative Party were late converts to this idea. It isn’t until 2009 that we find them promoting this concept, and then the Lib Dems got bundled into it as part of the coalition agreement of 2010.
The fact that the Conservatives are now joining up with a few dissident Labour councillors and Plaid Cymru’s Neil McEvoy in an attempt to get a mayor for Cardiff is very interesting. We need to remember, as I do on the doorstep, that an earlier attempt to produce a mayor and cabinet in Cardiff by the back door led to absolutely visceral hostility to the individual involved and, more than a decade later, there’s still a good deal of suspicion about the idea of such concentrated power in a single individual’s hands
One of the main reservations about elected mayors is the concentration of too much power in the hands of one individual. In fact, this is more perception than reality. Elected mayors, under the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011, have no more powers than the leader of a council working with a cabinet. An elected mayor has to work with a cabinet of elected councillors in the same way that an elected leader does. The difference is they would have been elected directly by the residents, rather than by their peers on the council. It’s hugely down to the leadership skills of the individual who is chosen to take on that role.
Bristol, for example, decided to elect a mayor in 2015, and this was on the wave of an anti-politics mood that swept an independent, George Ferguson, to power. Research by Professor Hambleton of the University of the West of England and Dr Sweeting of the University of Bristol shows that there’s been a perceived improvement in leadership and a clearer vision for the city of Bristol. Cardiff council certainly found him a good person to do business with as part of Cardiff’s work to develop a western powerhouse alliance between Bristol, Cardiff and Newport.
But elected mayors have not always been such a resounding success, starting with H’Angus the Monkey who was first elected in Hartlepool in 2002, whose third term ended with dismal rejection by the people of Hartlepool, who resoundingly decided to go back to the leader and cabinet model. We’ve also, more recently, had the Lutfur Rahman experience in Tower Hamlets—another supposed independent who was thrown out by the courts, which declared his election invalid.
My own view is that government for the people, rather than with them, is not a model that works in the new world of austerity politics. The old model of carrot and stick to obtain compliance for the ruling group is simply not possible in today’s local government. As ‘A Picture of Public Services, a publication by the Wales Audit Office makes clear, there are huge challenges facing local government, and simply managing services better or doing less is unlikely to be sufficient. Doing things differently requires the engagement and permission of the local population, which, in my view, is difficult to do in the shape of one individual.
After a hesitant start, the current leadership of Cardiff council is both engaging with its citizens on the difficult choices ahead of them, faced as a result of the Tory austerity economic policy, and, where possible, coming up with co-operative solutions. The Future Generations Act puts the strength of communities and sustainable development at the heart of everything that public services will need to deliver on in the future. In my view, that is better done by elected leaders with elected cabinets.