Mayors at a gallop: the national influence of local leaders

In collaboration with the Institute for Government and the University of the West of England, researchers at the School for Policy Studies hosted a debate featuring the directly elected mayors of Bristol and Leicester. Tom Gash, from the Institute gives his thoughts on the debate in a post that was first published on the Institute’s blog.  Tom Gash-136

Elected in 2011 and 2012 respectively, George Ferguson (Bristol) and Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester) have been working hard to show what mayors can do for our cities. At a recent event hosted at the Institute for Government, Tom Gash heard them raise two questions that any government after May 2015 will have to answer. Should we have more mayors? And should they have more powers?

Elected mayors were first established in England following the election of the Mayor of London in 2000. Later that year the Local Government Act paved the way for votes to set up mayors in a number of other local authorities. Eleven more mayors had been introduced by 2002. The Coalition gave the model another push in 2010 but voters in nine English cities rejected the idea in another series of referendums in 2012. There were yes votes in Bristol and Salford, however, and Leicester and Liverpool have adopted the model. Ferguson was elected as an independent for the job in Bristol. Soulsby got the job in Leicester after giving up his seat as Labour MP for Leicester South.

Sir Peter Soulsby and George Ferguson

George Ferguson and Sir Peter Soulsby speaking at the event

At the event Ferguson and Soulsby were persuasive, passionate advocates for the extra power mayors can wield. Soulsby described the extra influence he’d acquired since stepping down as an MP. “I haven’t missed the life in Westminster,” he said. “Now I’ve got a proper job.” Ferguson spoke with infectious energy about his passion for raising Bristol’s profile and attracting investment.

Both have gained national recognition since taking on the mayoral role. Ferguson’s trade-mark red trousers are recognised well beyond Bristol’s boundaries, and he has quickly gained a national profile that no council leader in the city has previously enjoyed. Soulsby may not have the red trousers, but that didn’t stop him being accosted on his way to the event by a man wanting to thank him for his work in the city. “I was council leader for 17 years,” he said, and “no one said that”. They didn’t in his six years as MP, either.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are less complimentary, but there is no doubt that mayors enjoy greater public recognition than council leaders. According to Dr David Sweeting of the University of Bristol and Professor Robin Hambleton of the University of the West of England, who are conducting research on the impact of the mayoral model, polls show that the proportion of Bristol residents who say that the city has visible leadership has grown from 24% to 69% since Ferguson took charge.

For Soulsby, the key difference between mayors and council leaders lies in their accountability. He outlined how council leaders were elected. “You don’t win it on the doorstep; you don’t win it on the pages of the Leicester Mercury… you win it by getting the support of your fellow councillors,” he said. He then held up a copy of a local newspaper. Its headline, referring to recent gridlock on the city’s roads, asked ‘who’s to blame?’ The question was a direct challenge to Soulsby, the mayor, to find out who should be held to account. Soulsby said that this accountability to the public had led to greater ambition. There had been, he said, a “whole load of risks I am able to take that I wasn’t able to take as a council leader”.

Ferguson pointed to the ability of mayors to act as a figurehead to attract investment. “You don’t invest in people you don’t know…we don’t have very good football teams [in Bristol] so we have to do it another way,” he said. And Soulsby said he enjoys far better access to secretaries of state than he had as an MP. As mayor he can also convene local public service leaders to sort out problems requiring co-ordination. Certainly, the two mayors’ belief in the power of the model chimes with previous Institute for Government research.

But it’s clear that not everyone is enamoured with the model. Ferguson, as an independent mayor, has had to overcome considerable resistance to the model from councillors who resent a perceived reduction in their powers – or in some cases simply dislike his policies. Much opposition has been “very civilised”, he said, but some “unbelievably vicious”. Soulsby spoke of his difficult relationship with Leicestershire’s Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, Sir Clive Loader. In response to questions, Ferguson reflected openly on some early mistakes in his stance towards councillors – in particular, referring to scrutiny by councillors as a “medieval process”.

However, he now feels he has built stronger, more collaborative relationships. Ferguson’s Cabinet of five councillors comes from four different parties, and Ferguson said he “couldn’t do the job without them”. He is also looking into how he can empower councillors in the city’s 14 neighbourhood partnerships. Soulsby claimed that scrutiny has become “very much more healthy… and effective” in Leicester since the change of model. Both agreed that the introduction of mayors does require a rethinking of the councillor’s role but did not believe that it would become less attractive in future. Soulsby spoke of “really quite good” candidates still coming forward for election in Leicester’s 2015 local elections.

The audience’s questions were mainly focused on the future. Some questions related to how the model of cities could be improved. Here, both mayors wholeheartedly supported the idea of greater proportional representation in local elections. Soulsby was clear that such a system would dramatically reduce his party’s power in Leicester but still believes the system would be far more functional.

Other questions focused on how cities could win further powers from Whitehall and Westminster and how the next government should think about and support city-regional government in England after May 2015. Ferguson pointed to his work bringing together Bristol with three neighbouring councils: “We call it CUBA… the County that Used to Be Avon.” He argued that the area is ready to take on transport powers similar to Greater London. Ferguson also appears to hope that walking the walk will accelerate devolution to the region. “I travel a lot,” he said, “and when I’m abroad I’m mayor of the city region” – not just selling Bristol, but Somerset and other neighbouring areas too. Soulsby wants local government to take on responsibilities from police and crime commissioners too. “I’m not quite sure what they’re meant to do,” he said. Both pointed to Greater Manchester, recent recipient of these powers as well as control of health, as the example to emulate in the next parliament.

They freely admit, however, that – though all parties have promised to devolve further after the election – no one knows what will happen next. Ferguson said further devolution to cities is “not inevitable” – a sensible view given broken promises in the past. And both recognised that gaining further powers is no more important than doing well with the powers they already have.

After all, come May 7, Peter Soulsby will face Leicester’s verdict on his first term as mayor. George Ferguson has a year longer to wait for the electorate’s judgement. And both may wait longer still to find out whether the mayoral model about which they are so passionate grows stronger and expands across England.

Further information
The event was hosted by the Institute for Government, the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England.

Informing the debate on directly elected mayors

David-SweetingDavid Sweeting

Recently George Osborne announced the creation of a ‘metro-mayor’ for Greater Manchester. In doing so he has joined a long line of heavyweight politicians who have endorsed the idea of directly elected mayors as at least part of the solution to issues in urban governance in English cities. From as far back as Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s, via Tony Blair, and through David Cameron the idea of a single figure to govern our cities has resonated strongly in Whitehall. In the press release on Manchester’s metro-mayor, Osborne is quoted as saying: ‘This will give Mancunians a powerful voice and bring practical improvements for local people, with better transport links, an Oyster-style travelcard, and more investment in skills and the city’s economy.’ The prospect of other cities introducing similar figures is clearly back on the agenda – whether on existing city boundaries or across a city-region.

One of the frustrations in the debate around directly elected mayors is the lack of empirical evidence around which to base judgements on their impact. Competing camps tend to paint over-idealised or over-pessimistic scenarios, depending on the position they wish to advocate. The pro-camp points towards the creation of a powerful central focus for urban governance. A leader of place rather than the council, this figure increases interest in civic affairs and is able to use their profile for the good of their areas, joining up diverse interests, and is firmly held to account at the ballot box every four years. The anti-camp tends to warn of the dangers of centralisation, with a directly elected mayor able to have free rein over the electoral cycle, yet with no reason to suppose that this figure is better able to work with diverse interests than traditional council leaders in their areas, often with concerns about the ‘wrong’ sort of person being elected.

In 2012 Bristol introduced a directly elected mayor, based on the city council area of Bristol. The Bristol Civic Leadership Project is analysing the introduction of the new system, drawing on empirical data from before and after its institution, both from members of the public in Bristol, and from different sectors involved in the governance of the city. We have reported our most recent analysis in our Policy Briefing, published via Policy Bristol.

Here I discuss two findings that are likely to be of interest in the debate around the introduction of mayors in other cities. The first is that there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of citizens who agree with the statement ‘the city of Bristol has visible leadership’. It has risen from 24.1% in 2012, before the introduction of the mayoral system, to 68.6% in 2014. This is a startling rise, and provides a boost to those who argued for the introduction of a mayor in Bristol on the basis that existing city leadership lacked sufficient public profile. The second is that there are very different views on the introduction of the mayor in different sectors of governance in the city. Our survey of civic leaders in 2012, before the introduction of the mayoral system, found that, on the whole, councillors were much less positive about the introduction of a mayor than other respondents from the public, private, and third sectors in the city. This is significant because directly elected mayors are often advocated on the basis that they will facilitate positive relationships across the city beyond the council chamber. Our research suggests that this may well be the case, but there clearly would be work to be done to convince councillors of the benefits of the system.

Our project in Bristol is ongoing, and in future we will be able to report a much larger, more rounded set of results. As we have data from both before and after the introduction of the mayoral system in the city, our work is well placed to shine light on claims about profile and visibility, or relationships between sectors, as a result of changing the system of governance, as reported above. Of course, there are limits to these claims, both as a result of methods used, and as a result of the complex nature of urban governance. For example, survey research is not sophisticated enough to disentangle the impact of the change in governance system and the change in political leader. There are also limits to the transferability of these results beyond the Bristol context. In relation to ‘metro-mayors’, for example, there is the issue that the mayoral system in Bristol was introduced on existing city boundaries, whereas, for example, the Manchester proposals are across the sub-region. This inevitably adds a layer of complexity when establishing new governance structures that are both effective and democratic. We nevertheless hope that other cities considering a variant of the directly elected mayor model of decision-making will find these results very useful in thinking through the consequences of introducing mayoral governance in their cities.

David is Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol

The Bristol Civic Leadership Project is being carried out by researchers at the University of Bristol, and the University of the West of England, Bristol, and has benefitted from ESRC Impact Acceleration Account funding.

This piece was originally posted on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

One year in, Bristol’s Mayoral experiment is making a difference to the city’s governance

Picture of GeorgeBristol’s first Elected Mayor, George Ferguson, gave his first State of the City address yesterday. Here, in a post that first appeared at Democratic AuditDavid Sweeting reviews the first year of George’s term in office and examines what the impact of Mayoral governance has been.

It is nearly a year since the first directly elected mayor of Bristol took office. While Bristol is not the only place in the country to have such a mayor, it was the only one of ten cities that said yes to a mayor in referendums held in May 2012. Despite various inducements from central government in the form of looking favourably at city deals, and also the prospect of a mayors’ cabinet with the PM himself, Bristolians were the only citizens in the country at that time to go for the option of replacing a traditional council leader with what many see as an American style figure at the head of city government. So, as the Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, prepares for his first ‘state of the city’ speech, it seems appropriate to ask, what difference does having an elected mayor make?

Campaigns for and against directly elected mayors tend to draw on similar arguments. The for camps tend to argue that directly elected mayors will be more democratic and more effective. They argue that when citizens are able to choose the mayor directly, it will lead to greater interest in the political process, more recognition of decision-makers, and therefore that leader will be more accountable once election time comes around. They also argue that directly elected mayors can draw on their direct mandate to influence others in the city, and that a mayor in post for four years can be more effective in making things happen, both inside and outside the council as a result of the stability that their fixed-term brings. The against camps tend to argue the reverse – that directly elected mayors will be less democratic and less effective. There is no way of getting rid of a mayor between elections, so they are unaccountable. And loading decision-making onto one individual centralises power too much, leading to delay and overload. Continue reading