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Leave the chain of command alone

September 10, 2013

 

EVERY so often I find myself reading how someone thinks the cure to most, if not all of local government ills is the installation of a directly elected mayor.

 

I'm afraid that you have to be put me down as 'unconvinced' on this one. That's mostly because the suggestion always comes across to me professionally as a one-size solution to the wrong problem.

 

Let's be clear. I'm very much in favour of seeing significant changes in Welsh local government.

 

It's just that I think the options currently available to citizens would have as much practical effect on matters as changing the curtains.

 

Some people like to portray the idea of having a powerful mayor like Boris Johnson as something radical and new. That's a little unfortunate because the first thing you have to realise is that the London model is not available to county councils outside the capital. The second is that the heyday of mayoral influence in civic life was over a century ago.  

 

Great figures like Joseph Chamberlain were behind sweeping reforms in public health and living conditions in Birmingham and elsewhere. They set the pattern for large influential municipal boroughs. Some academics will tell you that this so badly un-nerved government officials that successive Whitehall administrations have been nibbling away at town hall powers ever since.

 

Be that as it may, current legislation means that if you run a council in Wales in 2013 then you are charged with the delivery of social services but not health. You are responsible for schools but not colleges. You're expected to take a leading role in promoting the well being of the community but you can only raise a fraction of your spending from local revenues.

 

 

 

It's a very different picture among our European neighbours where elected local authorities deliver a much more comprehensive range of services and have greater recognition.

 

In the UK, local government is a lot lower down the political food chain and a lot less well regarded as a result. That, in my view, is the basic problem that needs challenging, not tinkering around with governance models.

 

"But an elected mayor will give us greater accountability", I hear it said. Maybe so, but are there hordes of electors currently pounding the doors of County Hall screaming out for accountability? If so then they're doing it very quietly.

 

How many reading this actually took an interest, let alone voted, in the recent election for South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner? Exactly.

 

People make comparisons with the US and point out that New York is run by a mayor and 12 councillors. What they don't mention is the 400 political staff and the two thousand support staff also on the books.

 

Even if Swansea, for example, decided in a huge display of dissatisfaction with the current set-up that it wanted an elected mayor and accepted that the winner would probably have his or her own staff of advisors plus a few deputies, the upshot is that the city would still have to elect and pay for 72 councillors as well — and, no, I don't know what they would be doing either.

 

For me, the bottom line is that there's not much to be gained under the current circumstances in swapping a leader and cabinet arrangement for an elected mayor if that individual is going to end up bound by the same political and financial restrictions.

 

What's needed instead is a series of legislative measures that provide (and restore) meaningful basic powers to local authorities so that they can better serve the communities that elected them.

 

A local taxation power is one example that comes to mind although there are plenty of others.

All in all, I think the novelty value of the mayoral 'reform' has run its course. Last year, 11 English local authorities were required to hold referendums to decide if they wanted an individual to run their city. Only Bristol came out in favour.

 

Local government reorganisation is very much on the agenda in Wales. Ministers are talking about functional mergers, a smaller number of councils and fewer councillors.

 

I suppose that whether these suggestions should be regarded as local empowerment or a widening of the democratic deficit largely depends on where you sit in the current structure.

 

One thing I'm fairly sure about however is that the plans that emerge won't include directly elected mayors and a Welsh Assembly in the same legislative package.

 

In my opinion, Wales just isn't big enough for both of them.

 

 

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