Sunday, 23 May 2010

Nottingham Set for an Elected Mayor?

In my usual late to the party way I learn that our shiny new coalition government has got Nottingham in line for an elected mayor (see page 12 of this document). It seems that not everybody is uniformly ecstatic about this.

Saturday's Post carried a selection of characteristically thoughtful and considered comments from Councillor Collins, the leader of the council in its current executive format and as such the person whose wings would be clipped the most by the installation of an elected mayor. Not that that would influence him in any way as I'm sure you realise.

So what does Leader Collins think of the proposals then?

"I think it's a stupid policy, it was stupid when Labour proposed it, it's stupid now."


"In Doncaster it led to a failing, dysfunctional council, in Hartlepool they elected a monkey."

[NCCLols translation service swings into action -

"I'm still massively bitter about not getting the Nottingham East gig and I'm running scared of losing most of my power to Su Pollard or some chump in a Robin Hood costume."]

Seeing as JoCo has brought the subject up, I'm not sure that an elected mayor necessarily LED to a failing, dysfunctional council in Doncaster, they seemed to have mastered the art of being a basket case some time before although an 'English Democrat' mayor with no knowledge of local administration issues and a bagful of bigotry hasn't helped.

As for Hartlepool, that monkey's real name is Stuart Drummond and last year he became the only elected mayor to be re-elected to a third term, despite failing in his sole campaign promise of free bananas for all local schoolchildren.

And Collins could do with checking the condition of his glass house before he goes around dismissing others as being dysfunctional.

So, what can we expect from an elected mayor? In terms of powers, an elected mayor would have broadly the same powers as the council's executive committee has now. The legislation for elected mayors is not new, it was introduced by the Local Government Act 2000, which required all local authorities to decide on one of three possible types of executive arrangements. They could choose from a leader and cabinet system, where the executive is drawn entirely from councillors (as NCC has now), a mayor plus cabinet system (which is the proposal in the government's plans) or a mayor plus council manager system. Only one council initially opted for this last system, Stoke on Trent, and they have changed to a leader plus cabinet system now.

Interestingly, in order to implement either of the elected mayor options, the proposal would have to be put before a referendum, whereas the cabinet plus leader system didn't. It's perhaps not surprising therefore that this is the option that most councils went with.

Once elected a mayor is entitled to appoint a cabinet committee from serving councillors and can delegate powers to them. In this sort of arrangement, if we imagine that JoCo went for and got the role of elected mayor, NCC's executive arrangements would probably work in a very similar way to how they do today in practical terms , as Collins is clearly very much in charge of the current Executive Board. It's just that some of the hats would have different names on them and Collins would not be accountable to councillors but directly to the electorate (afterthought; disturbingly the councillors on this form of cabinet committee would presumably be answerable to Collins - or whoever - as far as their executive powers are concerned, rather than councillors).

Bearing that in mind, I can only assume that Collins' lack of enthusiasm for an elected mayor system means that he is far from confident that he would get the nomination from the Labour party and/or that if he did, there are too many unknown variables between him and success in an election. He must be genuinely worried about this because he has effectively talked himself into a corner now, if he did decide to go for it he would look like a little bit of a hypocrite.

For myself I do have some reservations about elected mayors. There is the problem that a maverick could end up in post as a result of a protest vote. There's also the very real possibility that a mayor from an opposing political party is elected and it results in deadlock. In the latter case problems could hopefully be solved by everybody growing up and adopting coalition style working practices in order to get along, I just can't see that happening in Nottingham with the Labour Party's assumption of its right to rule. I also worry that local politics would end up being only about one person leading to people taking even less interest in local (ward) elections than they do already.

On the other hand it could all go swimmingly. You would have someone with a genuine democratic mandate in charge providing that oh so desirable 'strong government' and we all live happily ever after.

Just don't let it be Collins or a man in green tights...


Robert said...

In an ideal world, I would return to a city council run by corporate committees, with chairs chosen by the majority political party and a membership which reflects the size of each political party group on the city council. Full council meetings in my experience have always been little more than 'theatre', only occasionally dealing with issues, such as the annual council budget and set debates.

Left with a choice between a cabinet style city council where the Labour Group choose a leader and elect a panel of councillors to whom that 'leader' then hands out 'portfolios' or an elected mayor, I prefer the latter? Why?

Simply, I will get a say in who runs Nottingham, rather than a select group choosing the city leader. Whatever its failings (and they exist as you say), I believe that would be better than the present system. Alan Simpson might be persuaded to run or I might be able to support a mayoral candidate who will delegate control of local 'doorstep' services and local budgets to ward councillors.

Under the present system, the 'scrutiny' role of city councillors is a very ineffective and little better than a sham. Just as local communities need empowerin, so do back-bench councillors and the new coalition has missed a trick in tacking this problem.

Of course a mayoral contest is a popularity contest and charisma will be a factor, but I have a sneaking suspicion that any Labour candidate in Nottingham would win if we elected a mayor next week. I also think that in the absence of any real opposition to Labour in the city, any 'pro-mayoral forces' would find it hard to mount an effective or successful campaign.

Andy said...

Fair points well made. Although I have reservations about the prospects of a mayor I can't say that I've thought about it in enough depth to reach an opinion as to which as to which I think is the best/least worst system.

Interestingly, other than the cities which are earmarked for mayors councils are to be allowed to return to a committee system if they so choose.