We don’t believe that it is only directly-elected mayors who can provide visible leadership, focus on long-term strategic decisions or facilitate partnership working as the government claims. There are plenty of examples of local authorities with traditional governance arrangements that already achieve this. The regeneration and renaissance of our great cities over the past 20 years has been under a Leader and cabinet model. Look at the Quayside and Grainger Town – this wasn’t achieved under a mayor. The highest-rated local authorities in this region are not the ones with mayoral models. Local government works well in Newcastle and the council is top-rated for services for children and older people and for being environmentally-friendly. These may not be priorities for a maverick mayor, or one obsessed with his or her own profile and publicity.
It’s just not true that directly elected mayors are more democratic. How can it be more democratic to give so much power to just one elected representative? The proposal for a directly elected mayor is to have someone who cannot be removed for four years unless they are sectioned or commit a serious criminal offence. This means they are not subject to the checks and balances that are normally be in place in the British tradition. Such concentration of power in a single pair of hands means, for example, that it requires no less than a two thirds majority vote on a council to overturn a decision of the elected mayor on key issues such as the budget.
Each referendum is costing the public purse £250,000 (government figure) and if there are subsequently elections for mayors then you can expect local taxpayers not only to have to foot another hefty bill for the election but to pay big salaries for the mayor and his or her office/staff – much more than the present system. By way of illustration, the mayor of North Tyneside is paid over £60,000 per annum, whilst the leader of Newcastle city council – a much bigger and more significant authority – is satisfied with less than half of that amount. This happens everywhere – no wonder people want to stand as mayor!
The personality-obsessed media are in favour of elected mayors of course, and maybe that’s a reason to be against. We don’t do presidential-style politics in this country (however hard the media try to turn it that way). It should be about policy and delivery, not about the cult of celebrity.
Elected mayors can be a recipe for gridlock and chaos. Doncaster was saddled with an extreme right wing mayor who has divided their community and made the town virtually ungovernable - it had to be overseen by a squad of government “advisors”. Stoke was so dissatisfied with the chaos that an elected mayor caused that, amid allegations of corruption, they had another referendum and switched back again.
Closer to home, in North Tyneside the mayor has just had her budget rejected by councillors because she, as a Conservative, could not persuade the Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors to back her – even though she only needed a third of them on her side. For several years North Tyneside had a Labour mayor and a large Conservative majority on the council, and now it has a Conservative mayor and a very large Labour majority on the council. At best, this is confusing to the residents, at worst it is a recipe for gridlock – and this can happen anywhere. How is this better, stronger, more effective governance?
The real reason for what people allege is a lack of local leadership is the massive centralisation of British Government in the hands of a handful of politicians and civil servants in Whitehall. Even with welcome changes recently proposed, local government will spend less than 15% of the public sector spend in their area. What is needed is for local people to make local decisions about spending with locally raised money and for the abolition of more of the quangos where decisions continue to be made by unelected people in small private gatherings.
Pro-mayor campaigners undervalue the strength of the present system where a councillor does their apprenticeship as a ward councillor; gets to know the ropes; advances through the party group and is chosen to lead confident in the fact that they have a mandate from the people who day in and day out are responsible for helping to deliver the services as well as deliver the vote. When you are running a big business like Newcastle, teams are vital to ensure political coherence and service delivery. To take a business analogy, shareholders don’t choose the chairman or chief executive of a large private company.
There is little appetite or demand for elected mayors. At any time in the last 10 years people in Newcastle could have petitioned for a referendum but didn’t. Consultation three years ago in Newcastle also demonstrated no interest in changing. More than two thirds of the councils that have had a referendum have voted against it, including locally in Berwick, Darlington and Sunderland. And the turnout in referenda has been universally low, sometimes below 20%, so it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the idea. In mayoral elections themselves the turnout is no better than in councils with a traditional Leader model so it can’t be claimed to bring greater voter engagement. We struggle to find evidence that a change in local governance arrangements is high on the list of issues that are important to the people of Newcastle. Indeed, at this difficult time for local government and the users of its services, it could be argued to be an unnecessary distraction
Like the other ten cities and city councils where referendums are planned Newcastle has not been consulted on whether or not a referendum should go ahead in May and has not had the opportunity to challenge the assumptions that are made about the benefits of directly elected mayors. So much for localism! David Cameron has imposed a referendum on Newcastle and is desperate that people here vote for a Boris
Pro-mayor campaigners often disparagingly describe those against the change as defenders of the status quo, but we genuinely believe the current system to be better. On the contrary, it’s very interesting to note that many of the people behind the yes campaign in Newcastle have repeatedly failed to get elected at the annual city council elections - and they have often switched parties or labels in a desperate attempt to get in. People will see through them.