Today, 7 May, would have been the day that citizens in several English city-regions had the opportunity to vote for a directly elected mayor. They would have made their choice based partly on promises and commitments of what the candidates would do in office, but also based on a judgement of the incumbent mayor’s record in office. That would have been a first, and a milestone, for a new model of governance, in the UK at least, which was brought into being around four years ago.
Elected mayors have been a feature of local government in the UK for quite a while, most famously since the introduction of a mayor of London in 2000. But in 2015 the first ‘devolution deal’ was announced, between central government and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. As part of the bargain for more localised control of spending and policy an elected mayor was required to ensure leadership and accountability. Soon the Treasury was making deals with more city-regions and, for most of them, the then Chancellor George Osborne said that he would not impose a mayor on anyone, but that he would not settle for anything less.
And so the new “metro-mayor” model was implemented and used to facilitate devolution deals in the Liverpool City Region, West Midlands, Tees Valley, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and, more recently, Sheffield City Region, North of Tyne and West Yorkshire. Cornwall was alone in striking a deal, but not introducing an elected mayor.
It has been interesting over the past few years to see how this model has developed and embedded.
For the government at the time the city-region represented a new “geographical enabling framework”, chiefly to fulfil the aims of boosting and rebalancing economic growth, reducing spending on services, and, as a secondary aim, delivering public services on a more effective scale. In the subsequent years, though, the directly elected mayors have taken what is perhaps technically a limited political role and used the tools, capacities and platforms to carve out something that is potentially quite a game changer for UK governance.
Mayors certainly have a platform to get things done, driving local decisions and encouraging inward investment, as was intended by government and champions like Michael Heseltine. But they Recent coverage, particularly since the coronavirus crisis, has demonstrated the important role that mayors can play, especially as figureheads in their local areas. The have also begun to play a part by intervening in the national debate on behalf of the citizens in those local areas. In our 2017 report Beyond Devolution we argued that they should play a larger, institutionalised role in national governance. We called for a Mayors’ Senate, that would recognise and boost the importance of a wider pool of leaders, giving local government a seat at the table when national decisions are made. In the current context, amid widespread criticism of an overly centralised approach to governance, this kind of innovation could be transformative.
Just as with the role of the London mayor, the role, profile and scope of the position has changed, developed and grown quite significantly. There was low turnout in London in 2000 for the first election, but this has been consistently much higher in subsequent years. There were signs that participation would be high and engagement in the debate around these elections energised.
It is a real shame, therefore, that the immediate democratic link between mayor and citizens has been deferred. Though the election is not by itself a sufficient condition of democratic engagement, it is surely a necessary one. Those devolution deals between central and local government, as well as the legislation that was enacted and the institutions that were set up to facilitate them left open a set of questions about representation and democratic participation. They also left unanswered, entirely intentionally, important questions about the constitutional function and role of local government. Since 2017 elected mayors have used their democratic mandate to start providing answers to those questions.
Coronavirus has delayed the opportunity for citizens to give a response. They will get the opportunity of course, under different circumstances and with a new set of challenges.
See all of our content on elections and decision making in the Covid-19 era on Democracy Deferred?