Friday, 3 February 2012

UK gets ready for ‘American’ mayors

In three months, on 3 May, citizens of some of England’s largest cities will hold a referendum on whether or not they want their cities to be run by mayors. Though it may not seem like a revolution-in-the-making, it would represent a big change. American-style ‘mayors’ are an new concept in the UK.

London was the first British city to adopt the concept, creating an elected mayor position for the first time in 2000, a position now held by Boris Johnson. Before a devolution referendum was approved by Londoners in 1998 the city was ruled by 32 local boroughs with drastically less power than the current mayor enjoys. The referendum essentially created ‘London’ as an entity that had never existed before – a ‘Greater London Authority’ with its own government controlling the entire London area.

The ‘City of London’, the historic city where the financial centre now is, has had, and still has, a ceremonial ‘Lord Mayor” – a position which has existed since 1189. But actual elected mayors with powers have been unknown, largely because the UK is such a unitary state. It's one of the reasons some posit the British are so hostile to federalism at the European level. Given they have one of the lowest levels of local government in the western world, the concept of federal entitites sharing power rather than having it "dictated" to them from Brussels might be hard for them to understand.

As opposed to a federal state like the US, most decisions in the UK are taken centrally by the British Parliament – even painfully local things like new building authorisations or roads. But atr the turn of the century the government of Tony Blair made a huge decision - devolving powers to four regions through a process called devolution. Scotland and Wales were ‘devolved’ and given their own parliaments to make local decisions in 1999 (Northern Ireland has had a devolved government off and on since 1921, but a new one was established in 1999). London – which could be considered a ‘region’ in its own respect considering it has a larger population than Scotland and Wales put together – was also given devolved powers at the same time.

But that has left the rest of England outside London with no real local government, only councils that are responsible for things like trash pick-up and street repair. The Conservatives have been eager to increase local and regional control in the UK, but this has been difficult because there is no popular enthusiasm for the idea of an ‘English Parliament’ or even for new regional authorities. So David Cameron’s government has instead pushed ahead with a plan to give the largest cities in Britain elected mayors and to transfer powers from Westminster to the local municipalities.

The new positions are modelled on the American model of mayors, but in reality these new positions will have far more power than the average mayor in America because they have no ‘intermediate’ (i.e. state) authority to answer to. Apparently these mayors could even theoretically impose a city income tax (as exists in some cities like New York), although to my knowledge that has never been proposed or even discussed in London.

Cameron has mandated that several large English cities including Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Wakefield and Bradford must ask their citizens if they want to create devolved governments with an elected mayor on 3 May. Faced with rather dull enthusiasm for the project from the public in opinion polls, the government has decided to try to coax people to their side by offering significant funding to new mayoral administrations. Those that vote ‘yes’ in a referendum will then hold elections to pick their first mayor on 15 November.

But Liverpool has gotten a bit crafty about the process. Realising that the first city to seat a mayor is going to have the best choices for the new funding pie being offered, they’ve decided to skip the referendum and go straight for a mayoral election on 3 May. This would put their mayor in office months before any of the other cities, giving him or her the first access to the coveted funds and assistance. Pretty crafty those Liverpudlians.

So will the mayors solve the UK’s current mess of half-federalism? It’s hard to see how. Though devolving the governments of England’s largest cities will bring more local government to millions of people, it will still leave vast swathes of the English – specifically those living in rural or suburban areas (or those cities which reject the referendum) – without local government.

At some point, I believe, the UK is going to have to come up with some kind of long-term solution to the local government issue. Either it creates a number of equal regions where everyone has a local government to represent them, or it has to backtrack on the devolution process it has begun. Because trying to do it in this patchwork way and in fits and starts is not going to create a stable governing framework going forward.

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