In a country that has seen several local authority meltdowns, isn’t it time to look at alternative ways of running our cities, asks Dani Garavelli
THE SPAT between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone over their respective tax arrangements might not be the greatest advertisement for the office of directly elected mayor, but the war of egos means few Londoners will be unaware that the pair are once again battling it out to be the capital’s civic champion.
The dynamism and articulacy of the two putative leaders and the sparks that fly between them create a buzz that keeps people interested even at a time of entrenched political apathy.
Elsewhere in England, the election for a civic leader – which will coincide with local elections on 3 May – is also capturing the public imagination. Encouraged by a cross-party campaign involving former Labour transport secretary Lord Adonis, cities minister Greg Clark and Lord Heseltine – and by government hints that cities that go down that road will be “well-placed” to benefit from devolved powers and increased funding – Liverpool and Salford have become the latest cities to decide to swap old-style city bosses (elected by other councillors) for a directly elected figurehead. In addition, 10 other English cities, including Newcastle and Bradford, will be holding referenda to decide whether they too should change to the system already popular in the US and many European countries.
Directly elected mayors (DEMs), proponents of the system say, are good for democracy. Often mavericks from outside the political mainstream, they come armed with radical ideas and a can-do attitude. Free from the confines of the party machines, they are more likely to be able to achieve their goals. And if it all goes wrong, then at least everyone knows who’s to blame.
One only has to look at New York to see what a DEM can bring to a city. Rudy Giuliani reduced crime figures and transformed Times Square, while Michael Bloomberg spearheaded the controversial smoking ban. On this side of the Atlantic, Livingstone drove through the congestion charge, while Johnson introduced bendy buses and the country’s first bike hire scheme. There is evidence to suggest the 14 other English DEMs also have higher profiles and more clout than their non-directly elected counterparts.
All of which begs the question: why haven’t Scotland’s cities shown more interest in this type of civic leadership? Former MSP Frank McAveety believes Glasgow at least would benefit from an elected mayor/provost. “If you look at all the most dynamic cities around the globe – very often they have a very dynamic civic leadership, directly accountable to the electorate, which can speak beyond the usual party confines and bring in different networks to argue a case for their city,” the former leader of Glasgow City Council says.
Two Scottish think tanks – Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy – also back change, insisting elected leaders would improve visibility and accountability and boost turnout at council elections, which without the benefit of a Westminster or Holyrood election to boost numbers is expected to drop as low as 40 per cent this year.
Yet since the idea was last raised and rejected shortly after the Scottish devolution vote in 1997, it has barely been discussed. There has been no move to legislate for the possibility of holding referenda and only the Scottish Tories included the issue in their manifesto.
Of course, a system of elected mayors has its disadvantages. In those cities where referenda are being held, the No campaigns have focused on the cost, which some claim could reach £1 million in the first year alone. Other critics say the idea feeds into the modern cult of personality, and point to Hartlepool, where the football team’s mascot Angus the Monkey aka Stuart Drummond has been mayor for the last 10 years, as an example of how it can all go wrong.
Yet in a country which has seen several local authority meltdowns, including Edinburgh’s trams debacle and Aberdeen’s debt crisis, isn’t it time to at least look at alternative ways of running our cities?
There would be no shortage of charismatic, independently minded figures who might be suitable for the role: business leaders Sir Tom Hunter, Sir Brian Souter or Sir Ian Wood; political mavericks such as Margo MacDonald or George Galloway; or celebrities such as Elaine C Smith or Brian Cox could all be contenders, alongside existing local government figures. Given the power and a public mandate, mightn’t some of them have the vision to lift our cities out of the doldrums?
The shift towards elected mayors in England and Wales, initiated by New Labour, has been enthusiastically adopted by the Tory party. So integral is it to the government’s vision for the Big Society, Greg Clark insists the dividends it could provide would go beyond individual cities to the economy at large. “I believe the evidence shows that some forms of leadership are better suited than others in helping cities reach their full potential in an increasingly competitive international environment,” he said earlier this year. “The world’s great cities have mayors who lead their city on the international stage, attracting investment and jobs.”
A recent report published by The Institute for Government concluded that, although they have done little to increase diversity or turn-out, England’s existing DEMs have already brought significant benefits including increased visibility, increased stability and clout.
In Scotland, however, there has been a cultural resistance, both from existing councillors (whose parties may have a political stranglehold and may prefer to see deals done behind closed doors) and from the Scottish Government which seems in no hurry to devolve any of the power it fought so hard to gain.
In part, the impetus to introduce elected mayors was lost when Scotland adopted the Single Transferable Vote system for council elections, which supporters claim provides a fairer, more accountable form of local representation.
Yet, says political analyst Gerry Hassan, with so many councils likely to be hung after 3 May, and an absence of clear leadership in our cities, it’s an option we ought to at least consider. “I think one of the missing ingredients in the last decade in Scotland has been initiatives to shake things up and allow change to happen, and elected mayors with all their shortcomings might provide an answer,” Hassan says.
Geoff Mawdsley, director of Reform Scotland, says it’s about being able to hone in on what’s really important. “In New York it was crime and in London it was transport, but it could be the economy,” he says. “It’s about saying, ‘Right, what is the priority here?’ and then having the mandate to see it through and be held accountable for it.”
For many proponents, it’s also about having the power to drive through prestige projects, such as the regeneration of a docklands, which are so often dumped or diluted as they make their way through the committee system.
Glasgow has a track record in delivering such projects, from the Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign to the Commonwealth Games; but several other Scottish cities’ attempts to push through major schemes have been less successful, with Edinburgh’s trams project a five-year embarrassment and Aberdeen’s controversial plans to transform Union Terrace Gardens swept backwards and forwards on the tide of public opinion.
“If Edinburgh had had an elected mayor, the trams project would have to have been in their manifesto, otherwise it wouldn’t have got off the ground, so the priority placed on it would have been greater. There would have been more direction and more emphasis on making it happen,” says CSPP director Ross Martin. “With regard to this, or the likes of the Union Square project in Aberdeen, you would either make it work or you wouldn’t. If you did, you would be able to present yourself to the voters for re-election – if you didn’t, well, it would be a case of the buck stops here .”
One of the principal objections to the idea of an elected mayor outside Scotland is that it places too much power in the hands of one individual (although their budgets can still be overturned and they can be ousted by a vote of no confidence).
MP John Hemming, of the “Vote No to a Power Freak” campaign in Birmingham, was referred to the electoral commission after producing a poster that showed a photograph of the bombed-out city and the slogan “Brummies have always fought back against dictators. Don’t elect one.”
There are fears too that the post could attract celebrities with lots of charisma but little experience, or demagogues more interested in furthering their own careers than championing the city they’ve been elected to represent.
“If celebrities think it is important to stand and to use their celebrity status then it’s up to those who oppose them to test them on areas where they might be weak – policy for example,” Martin says. “There will be occasions when the likes of Angus the Monkey will be elected, it won’t always go the way some people would like it to, but that’s democracy.”
Overriding the fear of personality politics as far as Frank McAveety is concerned is the belief that, under the SNP, power has shifted from local authorities to the Scottish Parliament. “In recent years, between the Scottish Government and the local council, there seems to have been a centralising agenda,” he says, pointing to the freeze on the council tax. “Strong city leaders could be counter-balances to any dominant political parties or political leadership.”
As the row over Johnson’s £1.3m freelance earnings and Livingstone’s alleged tax avoidance keeps the London election on everyone’s lips, Liverpool too is reaping the benefits of its decision to go for a DEM.
Though Brookside creator Phil Redmond’s decision not to stand, and celebrity hairdresser Herbert Howe’s decision to drop out in protest at dirty politics, stripped the contest of some its lustre and left the road clear for council leader Joe Anderson to win an easy victory, it is still providing a forum for fiery debate.
“The most encouraging sign has been the proliferation of new policy ideas, many coming from outside of the three main parties, and even the main party candidates are coming up with things that would never feature in a conventional council election,” Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, director of Democratic Audit at Liverpool University, said recently.
Last week, the SNP’s response to the prospect of elected mayors north of the Border was lukewarm. “Unlike England, Scotland has proportional representation for local government, which boosts representation and accountability,” a party spokesman said. “There is also a contradiction between seeking to enhance local decision-making with vesting more powers in a single person.”
And yet watching Livingstone and Johnson clash swords and ideas on Newsnight, it is easy to lament the lack of razzmatazz and public engagement in the run-up to council elections north of the Border. “Yes there is a bit of the cult of personality in the Boris and Ken show – and not all of that is positive – but at least everyone knows who they are,” says Mawdsley. “My wife was speaking to work colleagues recently and very few of them were aware there was a local election on 3 May. I suspect that’s true of the vast majority of Scotland’s population.”