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Government / Local politics

This is why cities like Manchester need mayors

There has been much discussion, since George’s Osborne’s announcement about new powers for Greater Manchester, about the “imposition” of a metro-Mayor on a city that once voted against such a system.

First things first, the deal that is now on the table for Manchester, and potentially other cities, requires a mayor in the process of transferring more powers to them. But it’s not the same proposal put forward in the 2012 referendum. Two years ago, individual local authorities were asked to vote on a mayor for their council without any new responsibilities from government. Now, the Chancellor is offering city regions a deal which transfers powers to combined authorities and individual councils in exchange for more scrutiny and accountability as they exercise them.

The scale of powers that are on the table for combined authorities, including responsibility over a devolved transport budget and control of a £300 Housing Investment Fund, is significant. That requires substantial reform to their accountability to the public and amongst constituent authorities.

In these circumstances, such increased public accountability could take many forms, including an elected cabinet or committee. But because combined authorities already consist of elected leaders from each member authority, another cabinet or committee would likely put too many voices at the top and create duplication.

A mayor, on the other hand, could provide a single voice for the member authorities, and be held to account by their chief executives. In addition, four year terms for mayors have the potential to reduce political instability by reducing the churn in council leadership, thus facilitating more strategic, long term decision making at the city region level.

Mayors provide visibility, legitimacy and decision-making power to work across councils and with the private sector that no other leadership structure can offer. The role of the mayor should be to set the overall vision for the city, and to develop plans and policies for the city, covering economic development, transport, housing and regeneration. To that end, he or she would also set the budget for the combined authority. A mayor could use both the formal and informal powers to:

  • help city governments be decisive on issues of strategic economic importance;
  • act as a representative to local business and central government;
  • bring coherence to the actions of the public sector; and
  • collaborate with local authorities, business and other players in the wider local economy.

Direct election by residents from across a city, not just a single ward, should encourage strategic decision making that aligns the interests of the functional economy. This is because mayors should be elected to represent the interests of a city-region as a whole, representing urban, suburban and further-reaching interests. A single, visible leader for the city-region would also provide a clear point of contact and responsibility with whom central government and business can engage on behalf of the area.

Contrary to some of the public debate in recent days, directly elected city-region mayors would not be free to act as local dictators: rather, they should be held to account by the leaders of the combined authorities. Unlike the Assembly model in London, in combined authorities the mayor would be most effectively scrutinised by the combined authority. To that end, the mayor would ideally be required to:

  • consult on his or her draft statutory strategies and must consider doing so before exercising the general powers of the Authority (similar to s. 30(1) of the GLA Act 1999);
  • set and publicise his or her strategies, produced through the combined authority;
  • produce annual reports;
  • hold an annual “State of the City Debate” and;
  • hold public meetings, where members of the public may ask questions.

Mayors are just one part of the puzzle of changing how UK cities can be led and governed more effectively. Government will also need to set out how – given their increased powers and responsibilities – combined authorities and city-region mayors will be held accountable, both internally and to Whitehall. Internal scrutiny committees could solve part of that problem; the Centre for Cities will soon publish a brief outlining in detail the ways this could work.

In short: with greater powers comes greater responsibility. Mayors provide the leadership and public accountability needed to ensure that new powers for local government are used to the best interest of both the public and the local economy. If cities are serious about transferring more powers from the centre to the city region, they need to demonstrate they are serious about accountability as well.

Zach Wilcox is an analyst at the Centre for Cities. This article was first posted on the think tank’s blog.

 
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