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Rene Kinzett

Elected Mayors would end opaque decision-making structures in Local Government

February 26th, 2011 by René Kinzett

“THE buck stops here” said the sign on the desk of the 33rd US President Harry Truman.

Isn’t that what we really want from our politicians? Someone who is clearly in charge, someone we can point the finger of blame at (or even shower with praise!) and who doesn’t let officials and underlings take the heat for them when things go wrong?

Compare this ideal of a transparent decision-maker with the realities of local government in most of the United Kingdom. Where decision-makers are shielded from public scrutiny.

How many people know who the leader of their local Council is? Or indeed the name of the person who would most likely take over the reigns of power locally should their be a shift in the political control of the Council?

The system of electing our councillors means that the person who becomes the leader of the council is going to be someone we’ve probably never heard of and know very little about.

Many residents don’t even know which party runs their local council. In my area, many people I’ve spoken to still thinking that Labour are in control at Swansea’s Civic Centre, despite them having lost out to the Liberal Democrat-Independent Alliance in the elections of 2004 and 2008.

This anonymity is not lost on our politicians.

The Liberal Democrat- Independent Alliance councillors who run Swansea Council still print leaflets blaming the council for doing something wrong, or questioning service cuts that affect their own districts. I’ve seen similar from other parties in other areas.

If nobody knows who is responsible for decision- making, then the decision-makers can feel safe, hidden away from the full glare of public scrutiny behind a shield of public confusion and ignorance.

But cities like Swansea has an alternative.

The law allows any local authority to opt for an elected mayor model of local decision-making.

To trigger a referendum on giving the people of a town, city or borough their say as to whether we should have an elected Mayor, either the councillors must vote for it (would turkeys vote for Christmas?) or, in Wales at least, 10% of the electorate have to sign a petition between May and November of this year (in England a town would only need 5% of its population to sign the petition).

I am very pleased that the Localism Bill will give the people of some of the major cities of England the opportunity to vote as to whether they want an elected mayor. I know that the Shadow Minister for Local Government in Wales, the Conservative Assembly Member Jonathan Morgan, has promised to include a similar commitment in the Welsh Conservatives Manifesto for this year’s National Assembly elections.

This new model of local government would give the people of Swansea and other towns and cities the chance to have as their local political leader a person who is directly accountable to each and every elector.

The directly elected mayor would be a powerful voice for a city across the UK and the wider world.

A directly elected mayor would be the focal point for the regeneration of towns and cities and for the improvements in efficiencies and modernisation of local public services.

They would be a visible and accountable decision- maker, unable to hide behind bureaucrats or anonymous councillors.

The directly elected mayor would be the person that potential new employers could do business with and government would have to negotiate with.

The directly elected mayor would have the authority and influence that only comes from a direct mandate from the people.

Towns and cities like Swansea would join modern forward-thinking cities of the world in having its own leader with a mandate to serve in our interests, not the narrow interests of the group of councillors who he or she was selected by.

Let us unite on this issue, which is bigger than party politics, and bring about some real and lasting change in the way we do business in local government.

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  3. Ed Hammond Ed Hammond says:

    But changing political structures doesn’t automatically make politics more accountable. There are plenty of examples of councils with executive mayors having opaque and disordered decision-making structures and processes. Doncaster, anyone?

    It comes down much more to the prevailing political culture in the authority. Structures are secondary. Personally I think that elected mayors might be appropriate for some councils but not for others. So, for me, the powers in the 2000 Act – which allows any authority to propose a change to a mayoral structure (so this isn’t a “new freedom” being given in the Localism Bill) provide more than enough in allowing a decision to be taken locally about what is appropriate for that authority and that area.

    The Localism Bill proposals impose referenda on areas where there may be no local support whatsoever for the executive mayoral model. Those areas may well vote now, but why impose the requirements of referenda? And why, arbitrarily, in the twelve largest city authorities? And then, based on existing local government boundaries and not conurbations – so Manchester gets a referendum but not Salford – Newcastle, not Gateshead.

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