What is an elected mayor and why vote for one?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The more people who turn out to vote for the mayor, the more able he or she will be to exercise their soft power in the region and to demand more powers from central government.”  

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Elections for the new West Midlands Regional Mayor will be held on 4th May this year.  You will be able to vote in this election if you are a registered voter in Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

The role of elected mayor for regions, such as the West Midlands, has been created as part of a move to greater devolution of power over resources and policy, from central government to consortia of local authorities known as Combined Authorities.  One of the prerequisites of the devolution of significant powers and resources to Combined Authorities has been the creation of a new elected office – that of a directly elected regional mayor. From 2017 onwards there are expected to be directly elected mayors for Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, the West Midlands and Tees Valley. 

Of course, mayors are nothing new. Joseph Chamberlain, who led the foundation of the University of Birmingham, was elected Mayor of Birmingham in 1874 and acted as catalyst for hugely significant improvements to the lives of the people of Birmingham in the 1870’s and 80’s. District, Borough and City Councils across the country already have civic mayors, who are appointed from among the council members, not directly elected by the public. They are easily identified by their robes and chains of office.   More recently, directly elected “executive” mayors have been created in some local councils.

The question about whether we should have more elected mayors has been hotly contested. Conservative governments have demonstrated a surprisingly enduring enthusiasm for elected mayors for many years, in the face of opposition from many of their own MPs, local politicians of all political hues and the demonstrable apathy and mistrust of the public. 

Are mayors a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing?

The arguments in favour of directly elected mayors include:

  • Visibility – citizens and others know who the mayor is, which can reinvigorate democratic politics and civic engagement to counteract widespread political apathy.
  • The return of ‘personality’ to the political agenda in place of de-personalised party systems.
  • Legitimacy and accountability – arising from direct election.
  • Strategic focus and authority to decide – a mayor can make tough decisions for a city or region and then be held to account.
  • Stable leadership – a mayor typically holds office for four years.
  • Potential to attract new people into politics – creative individuals may be able to stimulate innovation.
  • Partnership working – a mayor is seen as the leader of the place, rather than the leader of the council. This can assist in building coalitions.

The arguments against directly elected mayors include:

  • An over-concentration of power in one person.
  • Weak power of recall – elect an incompetent mayor and the city or region is stuck with them for four years.
  • Celebrity posturing – the model could attract candidates more interested in self-promotion than delivering public benefits.
  • Cost – having a mayor will cost more money if the rest of the governance architecture of an area is unchanged.
  • Our over-centralised state remains – without further devolution, the mayor could be rendered ineffective by the control exercised by central government.

How widespread are elected mayors in the UK?

The first directly elected mayor in the UK was introduced in Greater London in 2000 as part of the statutory provisions of the Greater London Authority Act 1999.

In England, elected mayors were established by the Local Government Act 2000.  Eleven councils adopted a mayoral system (3% of councils), with over 80% adopting the leader-cabinet system.

As of May 2016, there have been 52 referendums on the question of changing executive arrangements to include an elected mayor. Of these, 16 have resulted in the establishment of a new mayoralty and 36 have been rejected by voters. The average "yes" vote was 45%. Typical turnout was around 30%, varying from 10% to 64%.  There have been six referendums on the question of removing the post of elected mayor, of which three have been disestablished.

The Localism Act 2011 permitted central government to trigger referendums for elected mayors in 10 large English cities.  On 3 May 2012, referendums were held in these cities, including Birmingham, to decide whether or not to switch to a system that includes a directly elected mayor.  Only one, Bristol, voted for a mayoral system. 

How well have other elected mayors performed?

The performance of elected mayors in England has been mixed.  In Stoke and Doncaster they did not deliver improvement, but in some areas they are linked to significant progress. Overall, the evidence base for improved performance under mayoral governance is weak.  

However, there is some evidence that that the introduction of an elected mayor has resulted in quicker and more transparent decision-making, that the mayor had a higher public profile, that the council was better at dealing with complex issues and that relationships with partners improved. 

Assessments of the impact of the London Mayor are complicated by the evolving powers linked to this role.  The initial model was largely restricted to transport, and led to the successful introduction of the congestion charge and cycling initiatives.  The subsequent successful bid for the London Olympics 2012 perhaps demonstrates the potential impact of the role of directly elected mayor.

What powers will the mayor of the West Midlands have?

The West Midlands mayor will represent a population of over 2.8 million people, compared to the average MP parliamentary constituency of under 96,000 people – almost 30 times as significant. The powers of the elected mayor are not yet proportionately significant. The West Midlands mayor will have limited independent powers at first. 

Most powers will be exercised with the cabinet of West Midlands Combined Authority, made up of mayor and the leaders of the seven member councils, each of whom has a vote. The cabinet will examine the mayor’s draft annual budget with its supporting the plans, policies and strategies and will be able to reject them if two-thirds of the cabinet agree to do so. The mayor can propose an alternative budget but won’t be able to vote in favour of it.  

The mayor will have some direct powers, including some compulsory purchase powers, responsibility for transport, control over a small part of revenue Council Tax and the possibility of raising additional funds through a supplement on business rates.

Most decisions of the Combined Authority will require a two thirds majority. The mayor won’t have casting vote, so will need to build consensus and some matters, such as land use plans, will require unanimous agreements
The WMCA also has ‘non-constituent members’ - councils who are not full members but will be able to vote on defined issues which affect their areas.

Although these powers may appear constrained, obscure and insignificant, it is important to recognise the extent of the ‘soft power’ which mayors will have. This power is derived from their directly elected status and their ability to ‘convene’, that is, to unite disparate institutions, communities and interests into a more coherent whole.  The more people who turn out to vote for the mayor, the more able he or she will be to exercise their soft power in the region and to demand more powers from central government. 

More details about mayoral powers can be found at here and here

Why is it important to vote?

Your vote counts!  It isn’t like the US presidential election, where an electoral college system means that a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the election. It isn’t like a UK General Election, where constituency system means that the government in power reflects the preferences of only about 25% of voters. It isn’t even like a local authority election, because the Leader and Cabinet are elected from among the members in the majority party, not chosen directly by you.

This election gives you exactly the same power as every other voter.  With power comes responsibility. The more people who vote, the more significant the role of the elected mayor will become. The more people who vote for the successful candidate, the more influence they’ll have to use on your behalf in the region and the country as whole. In recent years, London has become like a city state, with a disproportionate share of power and resources and that is now recognised as cause of inequality in the rest of the country, including the West Midlands.  The election of regional mayors, if they are well-suported and successful, will help to counterbalance the power of London. One thing is really clear, if you don’t vote and you then don’t like the outcome of the election, you’ll definitely have the mayor you deserve!

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