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Solace blog

7th July 2016

Elected mayors: The key to strong local leadership post- Brexit?

When people ask me ‘elected mayors: yes or no?’ I can see the disappointment in their eyes when I reply ’maybe’. That’s not surprising, because we all seek the comfort of certainty. However, the evidence about the effectiveness of mayors is very contradictory. Put simply, effectiveness depends on a combination of factors. The issue of elected mayors has been much contested over the past five years but, whatever people think and regardless of the seismic shock of the EU referendum result, they are definitely coming.

Change started slowly. Following the Local Government Act 2000, only 3% of councils opted for elected mayors compared with 80% that chose the leader/cabinet model. By 2016, there have been 52 referendums on the establishment of an elected mayor, all characterised by low turnout, of which only 16 gave positive results and 3 have since been disestablished. In spite of a lukewarm response from the public, some catastrophic failures of governance and confusion about the right geography for a mayoral model, the devolution agenda has put elected mayors centre stage. The introduction of an elected mayor has been the price, paid reluctantly in some places, for greater devolution. By 2017, there will new elected mayors in most of our major city regions.

So, is this a good thing? Much of the debate has been driven by profoundly held beliefs about the benefits and the risks of individual as opposed to collective leadership. Many of the arguments focus on the role and activities of the mayor, rather than on their operating environment. This is most notable in relation to arguments in favour of mayors as instruments of democratic re-engagement. This is a matter of profound concern now, as disengagement and lack of trust in politicians is thought to be at least partly responsible for many ‘leave’ votes. Unfortunately, most of the beliefs about the benefits of individual leadership rest on unconscious bias and wishful thinking but ‘so what’s new?’ I hear you ask.

Sifting through the arguments on both sides of the debate it appears there are two key sets of success factors. The first and most obvious are the skills and attributes of the mayor, including their values and integrity as well as their ability to inspire and galvanise. Do they have a positive message for the future? Can they harness the capacity of communities, business, industry, educational institutions, the public sector, and the third sector? The second is the context, or operating environment. How does the mayor fit in with the wider leadership environment and with other institutions and governance models? How much room to manoeuvre will they have? Will they be so full of themselves that they’ll alienate all the other leadership capacity, including leaders of councils? Will they focus on competitive advantage for their regions or could elected mayors form a powerful political cadre to oppose government policy which they see as detrimental to the interests of some or all of their regions? The answer to all these questions is still a ‘definite maybe’.

By Catherine Staite, Director of the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham.