Skip to main content Skip to navigation


From this historical quagmire we can trace the significance – and limits – of the locale, the place, for it is constituted as a bulwark against the perceived tyranny of a high spending and taxing Westminster, a site of personal and collective identity, and simultaneously an arena where frugality and laissez faire were the orders of the day; what Young (1989: 6) describes as a ‘Ratepayer Democracy.’ This also locks into a general disinterest in local government on the part of the electorate with low turn-outs, little knowledge, and a widespread disengagement (Copus, 2001: 488-9). That, of course, might just reflect the widespread assumption that since power emanates from the centre there is little point in local political engagement, and since Whitehall still controls around 70 per cent of public expenditure compared, for example, to the 20 per cent that the central German state is responsible for (only New Zealand has a higher proportion of central expenditure than the UK), it is clear that popular assumptions about who pulls the strings at the local level are broadly accurate. (3) The comparative details are in Figure 1 below.


Source: OECD Government at a glance 2009. Accessed on 31/3/2012 via,3746,en_2649_33735_47736841_1_1_1_1,00.html

To some extent this poses a classic chicken and egg problem, for the absence of powers undermines the point of the local engagement and the mayoral alternative is perceived by some to be aimed at addressing this very issue. Another issue that feeds into this cycle of indifference is the reluctance of the government to prescribe particular powers to newly elected mayors and to prefer to await the demands of the locally elected mayors – who may not be elected because they are perceived to lack the powers necessary to instigate change. In effect the ‘power’ of the mayor to make a difference generally may well be restricted by the specific ‘powers’ allocated to the role.

Furthermore the precise ‘power’ of the mayor may well be limited by the austerity measures in place generally and the rise of particular forms of expenditure that are, in many ways, non-discretionary. For example, the social care budget and all its inherent problems for coping with the increasing costs of adult social care might well leave any new mayor with precious little material resource for discretionary spend.

A further difficulty is the political and geographical boundary of any mayor, for while most are designated as local authority mayors there are good reasons to suggest that a political mandate needs to coincide with a viable economic footprint. In other words, there is no point in electing a mayor whose remit does not cover the necessarily boundaryspanning regions that could foster economic growth – the so-called Metro-Mayor. The utility of this is perhaps best seen in Auckland where Len Brown was elected as Mayor of the ‘Supercity’, an administrative region that replaced the previous eight directly elected local mayors with a single city region. This has allowed the Mayor to unlock the administrative blocks that have bedevilled the city’s transport infrastructure for years. Mayor Sullivan from Braintree in Massachusetts also spoke of this ‘linkage’: ‘How is this project going to be beneficial to our town, not only in terms of revenues and jobs, but how can we leverage, in the appropriate way, an investment by a developer to help the town on a greater level [such as the South Shore Plaza development, that came with a US$1.3M mitigation package].’

The other side of this particular ‘power’ coin is indeed the aforementioned power of the central state uninhibited by any judicial review such as a predominant supreme court or even a written constitution, and rooted in a first-pastthe- post- electoral system that can – and does – generate majorities in the House of Commons from minorities in the national vote.

In recent history (the latter half of the nineteenth century onwards) control over the local council has been through political party domination with the council leader elected by his or her party and personally controlling several significant local committees while the remaining committees were ‘packed’ with party councillors. In some places a ‘Lord Mayor’ or ‘Town Mayor’ was appointed by the council but restricted to overseeing ceremonial functions.

Perhaps more significantly this vested authority not in the council leader and cabinet, as in parliament, but in a committee structure that ensured no party leader could act as a local Prime Minister with the power to call elections, or dismiss cabinet members. This also meant the council leader was always in danger of being displaced by discontented party activists within the council – what anthropologists call ‘reverse dominance hierarchies’ (Boehm, 2001), in which no dominant individual can survive if the subordinates organise to discipline or oust the leader. Thus council leaders were denuded of the significant levers of power that prevail at the national level and were often locked in a cycle of short incumbencies that encouraged the development of more powerful servicedominated fiefdoms and the absence of local ‘barons with hitting power’, though there have always been individual leaders that acquired significant bases of support – and opposition (John, 2010: 87). On the other hand, local politics has spawned very influential political parties with domination of the industrial north by the Labour Party and the rural south by the Conservative Party and these dominant parties, rather than dominant individual leaders, were at the heart of most local political decision-making. Again, the consequence of this has tended to be a relatively weakened individual leadership.

As long as the local political agenda was just the efficient deployment of services, the professional control of local authorities by ‘expert’ service chiefs suited the context. However, the centralising thrust of the Thatcher governments effectively undermined some remaining vestiges of local authority, such as abolishing the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan County Councils in 1986. In the absence of significant local support for local politics or local politicians the changes stimulated little local protest though, as John (2010: 89) notes, the central government in France would never have even contemplated doing the same to Paris or any of the fiercely protected 30,000 local communes.

Despite this, the more recent period has witnessed several significant changes to local government. First, the 1989 Local Government and Housing Act required committee membership to reflect the proportion of elected local councillors, theoretically undermining the blanket domination of some local politics by the majority political party – though whether it has done, or whether local politics ever was in the hands of a single party in many areas, is disputed (John, 2010: 92/3). Second, the 2000 Local Government Act also changed the system, this time requiring councils to move to an executive system with either a ‘council leader and cabinet’ – where the leader chooses a small number of councillors to form a cabinet – or a directly elected mayor (either with a cabinet of elected councillors or with a council manager) acting as the executive and being held to account by an overview and scrutiny committee composed of the remaining councillors. This latter requirement has posed some problems for a party system built upon loyalty for it often requires councillors to abandon the very loyalties that secured their political success in the first place.

Some smaller district councils (with less than 85,000 populations) have retained the previous system but 81 per cent adopted the council leader and cabinet system and only 3 per cent went for the Mayoral system – which is hardly surprising given that in one mid-1990s poll 82 per cent of councillors opposed such a system, while 75 per cent of the population supported the idea but generally chose not to insist on a referendum by garnering the necessary minimum support of 5 per cent of the electorate (Stoker, 2004: 6/7). One unitary council (Stoke) opted for a mayor and council manager option though Stoke has witnessed significant problems that may bear no relationship to the governance system. Doncaster is also often cited as proof of flaws in the mayoral system but, again, it is the case that, like Stoke, Doncaster’s problems long predated the switch to an elected mayor (Parker, 2012: 20).

Doncaster’s problems long predated the switch to an elected mayor (Parker, 2012: 20). Unusually for local government reform, this approach embodied significant local decisionmaking and the research seems to suggest that most people think the leader and cabinet system in itself has generated stronger, more visible and more decisive, leadership (Stoker et al, 2006). Partly this was facilitated by the 2007 Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act which allowed council leaders to be in place for four years – though that is still checked by the scrutiny committee -but beyond the traditional short term party challenges. Ironically, then, those opting out of the elected mayoral route to avoid the problems associated with stronger leadership have often found themselves with stronger leadership and these seem to be associated with greater levels of general satisfaction all round.

Support of just 5 per cent of the local population was required to trigger a referendum but such was the general disinterest, coupled to the hostility of most local politicians, that only 30 referenda were held, and all had relatively low turnouts ranging from 10 per cent in Sunderland to 64 per cent in Berwick upon Tweed. The latter coincided with the General Election. Eleven councils (twelve including London, but significantly no county councils) originally adopted directly elected mayors after referenda: three London boroughs [Hackney, Lewisham and Newham], two Metropolitan districts [Doncaster and North Tyneside], two unitary councils [Hartlepool and Middlesbrough], and three district councils [Bedford, Mansfield and Watford]. As expected, the elections returned a higher proportion of Independent candidates and Stoker (2004: 10) has suggested that three quarters of the successful candidates were returned on the basis of some kind of protest vote. That, of course, implies that the situation is often ambiguous – so poor that the new mayor has a good chance of improving things and simultaneously so poor that the new mayor has few resources with which to improve things. For others the mayoral change has been a chance to build on existing strengths.

Intriguingly, it may be that the city mayor referenda trigger much greater interest in the whole process than previously was the case. For example, John Stevenson (MP for Carlisle) has recently suggested that smaller cities should be given the option of electing mayors and that the threshold for holding a referendum should be reduced to 2 per cent to encourage change, mainly because the very changes at large city levels would induce an ‘armaments race’ that might leave the smaller areas in the wake of the large cities. (4)

The turnout problem is one that has always bedevilled democracy: do low turnouts indicate electoral satisfaction with the system or disinterest in the system? Conventionally election winners have insisted on the former interpretation while election losers have suggested the latter is a better interpretation of the results. Perhaps the more important issue is to reflect on those places that have high turnouts (other than those countries where voting is mandatory) and consider whether the results relate to the assumption on the part of the voter that their vote will make a difference in this particular instance. For instance, where a political party has traditionally dominated local politics or the local council appears to have little or no ability to change the status quo then it seems that low turnouts are self-evidently explicable. Perhaps, again, the point is to note that executive mayors are unlikely to achieve widespread popular support unless it is clear that they have the necessary powers and spatial responsibilities to achieve change. However, as Lord Heseltine pointed out at a public event in Birmingham on 29 March 2012 sponsored by the Institute for Government, Alex Salmond has not been asking Whitehall for more powers – he has been demanding them! In many ways this relates to the difference between leading with and without authority: the new mayors have been reliant upon their ability to persuade and cajole people into accepting a new direction rather than using their formal powers – what Joseph Nye (2008) calls ‘soft power’.

Stoker’s (2004) review of survey data on mayors suggests not just that mayors are more visible than council leaders but, perhaps as a consequence, that the public tend to have what Meindl et al (1985) called ‘a romantic notion of (mayoral) leadership’. In effect, the voters consider mayors to be either very good or very poor, to have a strong understanding of local issues – or none at all – and to be able to achieve radical change – or none at all.

But in the last decade to 2012 only a few referenda have been held and only in Torbay was it successful. Many of the successful mayors were either campaigning against unpopular local party domination or were in themselves regarded as charismatic by their supporters. In February 2012, Liverpool City Council voted for a directly elected mayor from May 2012, spurred on, no doubt, by the prospect of acquiring £130m through a ‘city deal’. Moreover, Liverpool council has also decided that the mayoral count should take precedence over the local election count. Salford also voted for a mayoral referendum in 2012 by 56:44 (on an 18 per cent turnout) after a petition of 10,500 signatures in July 2011.

Much of the recent past can be captured in the rise of ‘Localism’, a term officially locked into the Coalition Government and the decentralising thrust of Eric Pickles as Secretary of State for Local Government and Communities. It is also captured by the pre-coalition experiments with Total Place, the Big Society (Grint and Holt, 2011), and the move towards elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) enshrined in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill which will abolish Police Authorities. Moreover, in March 2012 the Prime Minister announced a ‘mayors’ cabinet’ chaired by himself to meet at least twice a year, to swap ideas, lobby the government and ‘really drive’ political and economic renewal in England.

Of course, a critical issue for ‘localism’ is how local is local? For example, does the decentralisation imply that central power
(Westminster) will be diminished as local authority power increases or, as in the Free School arena, that local authority power will be decentralised to a much lower level whilst retaining a central overview? In some ways the dispute over localism reflects a much older dispute between the political right, such as de Tocqueville, Burke and Nisbet, and their
equivalent on the political left, such as the early friendly societies, trade unions, William Morris and the socialist movement. While the former suggested that volunteerism and local political activity would keep the tyrannies of the central state at bay, the latter suggested that local activism was the only way for the poor and powerless to protect themselves
from the ravages of industrial capitalism. Thus while Cameron considers Big Society as a means to give responsibility back to the local people who need to take it to break the cycle of welfare dependency and engage in positive self-help, Saskia Sassen has likened the same process to ‘economic colonialism’ where a local community is denuded of its resources and then required to compensate for the resulting problems by volunteering (Sennett, 2012).

This, in many ways, mirrors the dispute about democracy: are elected mayors less democratic than traditional councils or are they just different versions of democracy with neither more legitimate than the other? Since executive mayors are directly accountable to their electorate it could be argued that they are more democratic than the indirectly elected council leaders but it might also be that directly elected councillors who hold their indirectly elected council leader to account are more accountable. In effect democracy appears to be what Gallie (talking about ‘power’) considered an ‘essentially contested concept’; no appeal to a greater logic or more legitimate understanding of politics will bring us closer to what counts as ‘more democratic’. Thus it may be that executive mayors do not undermine the democratic mandate of ward councillors whose responsibility is to represent the interests of that locale, rather than engage in the representation of the whole area – that may be the remit of the mayor. In effect the ward councillor and mayor might focus on mobilising social capital in different places without necessarily treading on each others’ representative toes.

Where the roles of the ward councillor and the executive mayor do necessarily interrelate is probably over the issue of scrutiny. As we have seen, in the traditional system political party loyalty poses a particular dilemma for executive mayors who are rooted in political parties for traditionally the council leader exerts party discipline upon the councillors but the executive mayor model implies that the councillors should provide a stronger scrutiny role to ensure the integrity of the political system as a whole. As Ian Greenwood (Labour Party Council Leader of Bradford City Council) insists, ‘Leadership in local government is about leading the party you represent...the elected mayor posits dictation... you need consent from people and take them with you as a leader.’

This is perhaps less significant for independent mayors whose affiliations lie outside the traditional party boundaries and are therefore removed from the traditional party discipline system. However, John (2012) is clear that the history of mayoral referenda points to the importance of support – or opposition – from the local party elite.

Naturally the scrutiny function should not automatically impede the development of good relationships amongst the political leadership of a council and indeed there is strong evidence that the development of such relationships, and those between the political and managerial leadership, are important for the functioning of any local authority or council. However, it is also clear that an overdependent relationship can reduce the power of those outside the ‘magic circle’ to influence developments or even ensure proper scrutiny (Wilson and Game, 2006: 321). Nonetheless it seems clear that mayors have tended to adopt more of an ‘outward-facing’ or ‘public’ role in contrast to their chief administrative officers who have tended to focus on the ‘inwardfacing’ role of running – managing – the authority. A similar issue relates to the position of deputy mayors – they may be appointed to serve particular constituencies either internally or externally focused and they may be appointed directly by the mayor or elected by the wider council group.

The move towards directly elected mayors has the same socio-economic context – the economic and social decline of several cities and urban areas – but a rather different genesis. In 1991 Michael Heseltine, then the Conservative government’s Secretary of State for the Environment, had been sufficiently enamoured by the apparent success of the American experience of directly elected mayors for the idea to be floated in a Green Paper. That paper sank with little trace, except in the interest it stimulated amongst a variety of groups, including the Labour Party and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE). This eventually saw the light of day in Blair’s Modernisation Agenda and particularly in its associated developments with the reform to local government in London. The subsequent direct election of Ken Livingstone to Mayor of London enabled the implementation of traffic congestion charging, a significant success story of co-ordinative political action, and even though the London mayor’s remit is largely restricted to transport, the success of Boris Johnson’s support for the 2012 Olympic bid demonstrates some of the more symbolic aspects of directly elected local political leaders, as well as the possibility of less party–political partisanship. But why have elected mayors risen to the top of the political agenda now?