Directly elected mayors: A resurgent model for local government reform?

Last week, senior Tory MP Greg Hands announced his bid for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham to change its model of local government. Mr Hands wants a directly elected executive mayor for his patch. If his campaign secures 5% of registered electors a local referendum will be triggered to establish an executive mayor.

What does this mean, and why is it significant?

Local government in England and Wales has been a slow-paced evolutionary process, going from an ancient concept of feudal shires through to the multifaceted democratic system we have today. Just under two decades ago directly elected mayors became a major innovation.

As it stands, local authorities in England and Wales fall into counties, unitary authorities and metropolitan boroughs (like the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham). The vast majority of them have a ‘leader and cabinet’ or ‘committee system’ model for local government, with ceremonial lord mayors, mayors or chairmen as the most senior figure but real political power lies elsewhere.

Directly elected mayors with executive powers are the third model. They are not to be confused with ‘metro-mayors’ of combined local authorities, for example the West Midlands or the Mayor of London. Directly elected mayors were first introduced by the Local Government Act 2000, which initially provided that an authority could create the role if a local referendum is triggered. However, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 also permits local authorities to establish an executive mayor by a council resolution. Mr Hands is pursuing a referendum in accordance with the original 2000 Act.

He will have to secure 6,313 signatures in Hammersmith and Fulham to have a referendum. For a borough of 183,000 residents, this is not a huge hurdle and his campaign could get the numbers. If he secured a yes vote in a referendum, Hammersmith and Fulham would join the London Boroughs of Hackney, Newham, Lewisham and Tower Hamlets as councils with executive mayors. When Tony Blair’s government introduced elected mayors nineteen years ago, the notion was to concentrate local authority governance into a single point of accountability. The idea being decision-making would therefore be clearer to local residents. This is the argument Mr Hands is making.

Who would run and why?

The Evening Standard speculates that former council leader Stephen Greenhalgh would likely be the Conservatives’ candidate. He also served as a deputy mayor to Boris Johnson in City Hall and is a heavyweight in London politics. Having previously been a flagship Conservative authority, Labour won it with a major landslide in 2014 slashing the number of Tory councillors from 31 to just 11 today. They may see this as their only chance to run Hammersmith and Fulham for the foreseeable future. It should be noted that at the last local elections in 2018 the Conservatives had a 33.7% share of the poll compared to Labour’s 53.4%, making this quite the uphill struggle (source: London Datastore).    

Directly elected mayors are an interesting element of decision-making in local government, whereby councillors become a chamber of scrutineers of the executive mayor and his or her appointed cabinet made up of councillors. Arguably these mayors are among the most powerful individual politicians in British politics given their powers, although these powers do not exceed those of local councils without executive mayors. For this reason, many long-standing councillors used to a consensus building committee-based model see them as too powerful, with some even labelling them ‘dictatorial’. Some councils have even abolished the system, for example Stoke-on-Trent in 2008. 

Many councillors also consider the position as a competitor to the civic mayor and an affront to the traditions of local councils. An example of a council which has circumvented this difficulty is Newham, that effectively combines the executive and ceremonial nature of the office.  

Should Hammersmith and Fulham decide to have an executive mayor by voting yes in a referendum it may place a temptation on other councils to do the same, especially in London. For political parties who find themselves unable to win outright elections by gaining a majority of councillors, directly elected mayors may be the only option for obtaining control of their town hall. London politicos will be keeping a close eye on what happens in Hammersmith and Fulham.


Picture credit: About Manchester.

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