Please read our student and staff community guidance on COVID-19
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

The Business of Mayors

The summary report of The Warwick Commission on Elected Mayors and City Leadership concludes with the line “Politics is too important to be left to politicians”.

In less than three weeks Birmingham voters will decide how they want to be governed – by a council cabinet and a leader selected by fellow councillors, or a mayor elected directly by citizens.

For many in the business community the decision to move to a directly elected mayor, or not, is out of their hands. Those who don't live within the city borders will have no say either in the referendum or any resulting contest. However, for voters and everyone with an interest in Birmingham, the impending referendum is important.

The choice, on the face of it, appears straightforward: keep the current system or go with something new. However, the issues are far more complex, as the Commission discovered.

We set out to unpick many aspects that are part and parcel of the Government's mayor policy. The central question we focussed on was: "What is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to cities." Earlier this week, The University of Warwick published a summary of our work to date.

To anyone looking for a simple yes/no answer on mayors will have been disappointed. The evidence and the arguments are, of course, too complex. Our data does suggest, though, that elected mayors offer a real opportunity for change in a place where change is needed.

But in some cities an elected mayor may not be necessary because they have already constructed a significant identity and are vigorously and strategically led.

Politics is about power - and powers have been at the centre of this debate. We found that greater clarity from Government would have helped to better inform the electorate on the choice they are about to make. However, we have also encouraged candidates to make clear the powers they want - indeed demand - in their manifestos.

Perhaps more importantly, we have made the distinction between 'power' and 'powers'. Our Commissioners noted the importance of soft and invisible power effectively vested in a politician with a direct mandate, as well as the accumulation of powers that often follows effective deployment of such power.

Our other headline issue is footprint. We believe that a sense of place and identity are essential for an executive mayor to succeed and that such a figure should govern an economic area rather than an artificial one.

It is difficult to mention mayors or municipal government without recourse to Chamberlain. His civic leadership is cited as heralding a golden era of local government. Many of Chamberlain's achievements were through his Machiavellian transformation of the position of Mayor from ceremonial chain wearer to political leader, though he did this as leader of the council not as a directly elected mayor.

Birmingham's current Council Leader takes every opportunity to roll out the 'Global City, Local Heart' slogan. So he and others will be interested in our study with the most comparative research of its kind into directly elected mayors. From Auckland to Wellington and Calgary to Coventry, the report features interviews with an array of mayors, council leaders and their staff.

Birmingham is seen as the city most likely to adopt a new system of council leadership amongst the ten facing referenda on 3rd May. So, perhaps most advance thinking is required here.

Our independent commissioners focussed on offering practical guidance on implementation for those cites which adopt the mayoral model. Among their key points is transition and the importance of putting an effective process from old to new system in place. Those cities which agree the new form of leadership will not be looking for a new person behind the same desk. They'll be looking for different approaches, cultures and structures.

If the polls and commentators are right, Birmingham is in for a big change. Not simply in who - but in how the city (and I do mean city rather than Council) is led. Whilst business does not have a vote, it should think very carefully about the impact and opportunities of what could be a very radical transformation. After all, any new Mayor of Birmingham is likely to be judged on jobs and growth more than any other indicators when they face the electorate again in four years.

I am looking forward to taking part in the debate in the City Council chamber organised by Birmingham Forward and Future, along with John Atkinson one of our independent Commissioners. We will be discussing what an elected Mayor of Birmingham could do for, with and to business.

It's not too early to think about the business of a mayor.