Who needs a mayor?

What is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to cities?

Who Needs a Mayor

This is the question answered in the report of the Warwick Commission on Elected Mayors and City Leadership, published on 16th April 2012 and based on 42 interviews with elected mayors, council leaders and their staff in the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

On 3rd May 2012, registered voters in several cities in England were asked to decide whether they should have a new system of local leadership. To some this was regarded as the latest stage in the evolution of local government in England; to others it represented an unnecessary concentration of power in an apolitical post.

The question of whether mayors are the right system of democratic governance was not scrutinised in the report. Rather, the Commission set out the background to this development by examining the history of local government, considered why elected mayors have risen to the top of the political agenda, and explored what existing mayors and their officers, and opponents, consider to be the advantages and disadvantages of directly elected mayors. The report also considered the optimal scale and structure for the offices of elected mayor.

The Commission describes the rationale behind elected mayors as follows: “The history of local government has consistently reproduced the centripetal forces of the centre versus the centrifugal forces of the locale and, by and large, England has ended up with one of the most centralised governments in the world. In turn, that seems to have demobilised the electorate in many localities and one of the underlying thrusts of the Localism agenda of the government is to reinvigorate the local body politic by giving power away to elected mayors.”

The data accumulated in the study points to the opportunity presented by this system to capitalise on local identity, labour and knowledge. Directly elected mayors also offer the possibility of greater visibility, accountability and coordinative leadership. Conversely, there is a danger that mayors are elected whose popularity exceeds their leadership potential, a risk which is mitigated by a limited term (four years) and relative political independence.

The Commission makes several recommendations, including the need to assess whether the electorate is relatively happy with the current structure of governance, the need to establish indicators of success by which we can evaluate the performance of mayors, the requirement to identify opportunity for change in places where change is needed, the need to ensure that the leader is not isolated and the need to trust the electorate to make the right decisions.

“Ultimately directly elected mayors may be a way of answering the most important question at the heart of governance: what is the purpose of politics? If politics is about how we mediate our individual and collective conflicts then we had better pay some attention to reinvigorating the body-politic: politics is too important to be left to politicians.” This Commission was led by Professor Wyn Grant from the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and Professor Keith Grint from the Warwick Business School.