England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

A confusion of Mayors?

Photo Credit: Khairil Zhafri via Compfight cc

What’s an appropriate term for a number of mayors – say in Salford, which may have a metro mayor, an elected city mayor and a ceremonial mayor – a collection, an assembly, an assortment? Hopefully, though, not a confusion of mayors? But how to avoid it? Asks Janet Sillett

We know we are now firmly in the era of super mayors – metro mayors and elected mayors maybe even in county areas. There will be debate and arguments, amendments and negotiations, but mayors of combined authorities are on the cards beyond Greater Manchester. We can (and should) make the case that devolution should mean no one size fits all and imposing one form of governance regardless of the particular circumstances isn’t terribly democratic, but even if more flexibility emerges from the parliamentary process of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, there are still (and possible more) complex questions around accountability, scrutiny and transparency, as a patchwork of different arrangements, such as city deals and integrated care, takes shape.

The voice of residents hasn’t been heard much so far. How can local people, council partners in the voluntary and private sector and backbench councillors be involved in the shaping of new ways of working, and in monitoring and scrutiny of it?

Firstly it’s not easy to be involved, even consulted, if it isn’t clear who is making decisions and who is accountable for them. Are the priorities for devolved functions being consulted on? Where are strategies being agreed, who is responsible for what on a more day to day level? How are resources being shared, especially when they are scarce? Who sets the overall vision? Where is the balance of power between the different leaders/mayors within a combined authority area?

One of the strongest justifications for having an elected mayor of these wider authorities is that they are a visible leader, elected democratically, that can drive change and be held accountable. This must be inherently more democrat than a centralised system, but it doesn’t remove the need for transparency and additional accountability. Democracy doesn’t stop with an election.

Mayors (and other forms of new arrangements) need to be held accountable within the new authority and to the outside world. The mayor will be part of the cabinet of a combined authority and be accountable to it, but that’s surely not enough. The Bill sets out how overview and scrutiny will work – so it is more of the same really. Scrutiny can be very successful but it isn’t always, and shouldn’t we be thinking a bit more radically? Jessica Crowe, former Chief Executive, of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, suggested a local PAC. A committee with real clout and a high profile – to hold powerful politicians to account requires powerful mechanisms to do so.

Does anyone remember when subsidiarity was ‘the thing’? It isn’t much used as a word now – too European-speak maybe – but it is worth reminding ourselves of from time to time: decisions being taken as close as possible to the people they affect. Devolution is subsidiarity at work from the centre to localities, but it must go beyond that. And there is always a danger it could take power upwards when it needs to devolve down – to local areas and communities. The new mayors will be powerful – it is crucial that they are not seen as keeping that power to themselves – narrowing democracy not enhancing it.

The prime rationale for devolution seems to be to promote growth by maximising the strengths of local and regional people and places. But it also needs to be seen to improve lives at the local level and to boost democracy; ensuring that communities are involved and consulted, that there is transparency and understanding, that local people and councillors can challenge and scrutinise.

LGiU set out the principles of sound devolution in Public Finance – here. I would add maximum transparency, strong scrutiny, public understanding and challenge. Then it can be an accomplishment of mayors.

Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s Briefings Manager.