Comment: The case for more elected mayors

By Alexandra Jones

Next week, voters in ten English cities will decide whether to move from the traditional leader and Cabinet model to be led by an elected mayor. As expected, this is generating plenty of discussion in local and national media from commentators both for and against elected mayors.

This is potentially one of the most significant changes to England's political landscape in many years. Even David Cameron has taken the time to publicly back the campaign for mayors, visiting Bristol to discuss the issue earlier this week where he called it a 'once-in-a-generation chance to change the way our country is run.'

Centre for Cities has consistently argued that, if given the right powers, mayors have potential to make a positive difference to cities. Here's why.

Mayors will have a big job to do. Centre for Cities published a data snap-shot on Tuesday which showed that mayors will represent at least two-thirds more people than the average constituency MP. If all ten cities vote to have a mayor on May 3rd, then an additional ten per cent of people in England will be led by a mayor. When London is included this rises to over a quarter of the country's population.

Much of the new mayors' remit will be inherited from council leaders, many of whom do a great job for their towns and cities. But council leaders are elected by a ward rather than constituents living in the wider local authority, and this is important for two reasons. Firstly, the average number of people living in a ward is about 6,900, while the average population for a local authority is over 500,000. This means that a mayor will be accountable to the wider electorate rather than his or her ward. Secondly, this system makes it more difficult for a leader to make decisions that may be right for economic growth, but more politically contentious. An example of this may be a controversial planning application, or plans for a major new road or railway line. An elected mayor would need to prove that he or she is doing the best job for the local authority as a whole to keep their job at election time every four years.

So the visibility, mandate and reach that the mayor will have should leave them well placed to advocate for growth in their city. Cameron has already pledged to set up a 'Cabinet of Mayors'; essentially a direct line into No 10. This means that cities with a mayor will have a good chance of getting their messages across to national government.

But the question that government must answer, and fast, is exactly what powers will be afforded to mayors?

These powers should have been defined months ago to give voters a clear indication of exactly what a cross in the 'yes' box for mayors on May 3rd will mean. Without this definition it is very difficult for people to know what they are voting for. Centre for Cities has argued that mayors should be given the strategic powers that can enable them to drive their city's growth agenda. In practical terms they should be made co-chairs of their Local Enterprise Partnerships and head up the Integrated Transport Authority. They should also make decisions on planning and transport applications that will have an impact on their city's economy.

They should also be careful not to tie themselves in knots spending all of their time dealing with the day to day requirements of fixing pot holes and rubbish collection. This is where the London model has an advantage. Boris dedicates his time to making strategic decisions about transport, planning and housing that affect the capital's economy whilst service delivery is managed by the London boroughs. To make a real difference and to do their jobs justice, elected mayors in other cities will need to balance delivery of local services with a focus on kickstarting economic growth.

Ultimately, government should give cities the option whether to elect a local authority mayor or a 'metro mayor' that would cover a larger geography and multiple local authorities. For many cities across the country, their economy doesn't stop at political borders. Bristol's labour market footprint for example stretches out from Bristol local authority to Wotton-under-Edge 16 miles North and Weston-Super-Mare 18 miles south. Having a mayor governing across the level of the "real" economy would empower them to look at the bigger picture and make decisions that can drive prosperity in the whole of the city region.

There is no magic medicine for economic recovery, but elected mayors have the potential to drive through changes that can kick start growth. To do this they need to have a strong focus on what works for the city as a whole, and they need to be given the right strategic powers. To be really effective, many parts of the UK should be given the option to elect a 'metro' mayor to link up policies for growth across the whole of the real economy. But for now it's a waiting game as we find out how many cities will vote in favour of mayors on May 3rd.

Alexandra Jones is chief executive of Centre for Cities

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