The Localism Act (2011) made provision for the creation of directly elected mayors, subject to confirmatory referenda, in England’s largest cities. Referenda in some or all of those cities will take place in May 2012. Where the outcome is a ‘yes’ vote, elections will take place on 15th November 2012. In response to this development The University of Warwick has funded a Warwick Commissions into Elected Mayors and City Leadership. In turn, the Commission is funding a doctoral researcher (Clare Holt) to undertake a sequence of interviews with mayors, their officers and related experts, across the world, and so far that has involved 38 interviews in Australia, England, Canada and New Zealand as well as group discussions and a short ethnographical study. Matthew Maguire, a graduate student from the Department Of Political Science, Boston University, undertook interviews with four mayors from the State of Massachusetts.
The Commission set itself the following key question: “What is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to cities?” The purpose of the Warwick Commission on Elected Mayors and City Leadership is not to judge whether directly elected mayors are the right system of democratic governance as this will be a matter for electors. Rather, the Commission sets out the background to this development in terms of the history of local government, considers why elected mayors have risen to the surface of the political agenda now, and explores what existing mayors and their officers, and opponents, consider the advantages and disadvantages of directly elected mayors; in effect, the optimal scale and structure for the offices of elected mayor if one or more city votes to adopt the system. The Commission is strictly party and candidate neutral and has been open to the deliberations to any stakeholder with an interest in the subject of elected mayors.
The history of mayoral referenda is not great: 27 of the 42 so far undertaken have resulted in a ‘no’ vote with the turnout averaging 29 per cent but varying from 10 per cent to 64 per cent. (1) That level of disinterest is also manifest in the number of responses to the government consultation on elected mayors for twelve cities in England: only 58 replies were received and only 19 came from the public (DCLG, 2012).
Although elected mayors remain an insignificant minority of governance systems in the UK (only 3 per cent [12 of 410] of local authorities have adopted them since the possibility was made available through the Local Government Act of 2000) it is clear from the case of London that an elected mayor offers political possibilities that traditional party political governance systems do not (Swinney et al, 2011). Indeed, five reasons (Borraz and John, 2004; Randle, 2004) are often cited for the rise of the elected mayor:
- A response to the rise of the network society that otherwise disperses responsibility and a demand for greater accountability from political leaders.
- An attempt to reinvigorate democratic politics and civic engagement in the face of apparently widespread political apathy.
- A localist and decentralising reaction against the rise of the centralising power of the state or super state (European Union).
- The realisation by some local politicians in certain areas that they can make the most impact through elected mayors, not traditional party politics.
- The return of ‘personality’ to the political agenda in place of depersonalised party systems.
The intent of this Commission has been to evaluate the case for elected mayors from the perspective of strategic leadership. In other words, it is not designed to consider alternative electoral systems or how to ensure elected mayors become more popular, but to set out the advantages and disadvantages of elected mayors in advance of the referendum to be held on 3rd May 2012 in those cities covered by the legislation.
To this end the most important initial research questions are set out below but the most critical is ‘What is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to local authorities?’ In effect we sought to evaluate the strategic role that elected mayors have had. We did this by considering their effects in the UK and more widely in the world where appropriate. The effectiveness of the London Mayor is already the subject of much debate (Sweeting, 2002a, 2000b), as are the differing governance and allegiance systems posed by the mayoral model (Copus, 2004; Fenwick, et al, 2006; Travers, 2002), the importance of local conditions and characters (Campus and Pasquino, 2000; Game, 2003; Rallings et al, 2002; Rao, 2003) and while the role of elected mayors in Northern Europe (Goldsmith and Larsen, 2004; Wollmann, 2000, 2005) and the USA is already relatively well covered (DeSantis and Renner, 2002; Elcock and Fenwick, 2007; Frederickson et al, 2004; Hambleton and
Sweeting, 2004; Judd, 2000; Leach and Norris, 2002; McNitt, 2010), there is little on multi-comparative international approaches (Gough, 2006) and even less within political systems that closely resemble the UK’s political system, such as parts of Australia [NSW and Northern Territory] (Grant et al, 2011; Sansom, 2012), New Zealand, Canada or the commonwealth more broadly.
What, exactly, should mayors be concerned with? Leach and Wilson (2000) suggest that four priorities should dominate the focus of council leaders: maintaining political cohesion within the council to secure decision-making – though this is less important for mayors because of their independent political mandate and relative independence from party discipline; providing strategic direction; representing the authority to the outside world; ensuring the execution of decisions made.
Contemporary council leaders and elected mayors, according to Stoker (2004: 12/13) both have greater individual decision-making powers than previous local government systems and this is particularly the case for mayors who can require the council to reconsider its decisions. Equally important, a mayor’s decisions can only be overturned through a two thirds majority vote by the council and mayors cannot be removed by the council or ruling group for the four years of their tenure. The fifth role that Stoker (2004: 16) highlights is the representation of their place – the face of the place – while the sixth is the role of accountability and visibility; unlike many council leaders, most mayors seem to be known to their public. (2)
The Commission recognises that the precise nature of the historical and cultural context may make a significant difference to the answers given to the primary question, thus the comparative nature of the research with the focus on those areas not already adequately covered in the extant research. Hence we focused not just on directly elected English mayors but also on elected mayors in Canada, Australia and New Zealand because their local governance systems bear some clear resemblance to that in England. We also took a limited look at the most important US city mayors recognising that the latter system is very different from the one considered here (Pimlott and Rao, 2002).
Subsidiary Research Questions
1. Do elected mayors make any difference to their local areas?
2. How do we know what difference elected mayors make?
3. Why is the debate about elected mayors surfacing now?
4. Is the primary role of elected mayors one of:
a) Strategic leadership?
b) The co-ordination of different interests?
c) Cutting through red tape?
d) Mobilising coalitions of the willing?
e) Generating a local identity?
f) Helping drive economic growth?
5. What difference does the local/national context make?
6. What are the different models of elected mayors and their associated local governance systems – and what difference do they make?
7. What definition of leadership does the elected mayors debate imply?
8. What is the connection between elected mayors and the more general decentralisation debate?
9. What is the connection between elected mayors and the apparent decline in the popularity of traditional political parties?
10. What is the role of charisma and personality in the election of mayors?
11. What is the link between elected mayors and elected police commissioners?
We realised that gathering data from a sample of the world’s elected mayors is both difficult, time consuming and expensive. To that end we secured the services of a PhD student (Clare Holt) who had the experience and ability to start the research almost immediately and undertook 38 interviews in the period between November 2011 and February 2012. Matthew Maguire, a graduate student from Boston, also undertook four interviews in the USA in February 2012 with elected mayors from the state of Massachusetts. Given the complex nature of the topic we used a qualitative approach to the interviewing supplemented by an array of more quantitative data generated from a trawl through the published literature and the unpublished reports of the various elected mayors. The method involved allowing the interviewees to ‘tell their story’ and generated some extremely rich narratives of leadership, as well as proving a cathartic experience from the majority of those interviewed. We then adopted the narrative analysis methods of Gabriel (2000, 2004a, 2004b) to interpret the data.
Following publication of this report, Clare will plan a series of short ethnographic periods with newly elected mayors (assuming at least some are elected) and follow them for their first few weeks in office to assess their experiences in the light of the existing theory. All quotations, unless otherwise attributed, are drawn from the research interviews. Before we explore the narratives of the mayors, their officers and their opponents let us consider the history of local government to frame the current developments.
- 42 interviews
- 6 council leaders
- 11 mayors in England
- 7 mayors in Australia, Canada and New Zealand
- 4 in the United States