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11 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 12:01pm

For elected mayors to work they must do more to engage the public

Lack of public awareness could hamper the devolution agenda. 

By Alistair Clark

After the emphatic victory of Sadiq Khan in London and Marvin Rees in Bristol, elected Mayors have once again been in the spotlight. The extension of elected Mayors is a central plank of the government’s devolution agenda in England, along with varying powers to different regions and cities. Amid the post-election excitement, it’s worth looking at the key areas which the government will need to consider, as it moves towards greater devolution.

There is a clear need for more public engagement with the Mayoral agenda. Much has been made about how Sadiq Khan’s 1,148,716 votes gives him the largest electoral mandate of any UK politician. This is true in that the median constituency electorate is around 72,400 in England. Yet of London’s 5.74 million registered electors, only 45.3 per cent bothered to turnout to vote. Turnout for the Salford Mayoralty was 30 per cent, for Liverpool 30.9 per cent and for Bristol 44.9 per cent. Local elections always have lower turnouts, and the London turnout figure was certainly a record for the post. But, for important elected positions, none of these figures is anything to get excited about.

In a recent pamphlet on the Devolution Revolution by the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal, I argued that more work needs to be done to engage the public with the Mayoral agenda. The danger is that lack of public engagement hampers the current devolution project from the start. Many places actually voted against elected Mayors in 2012, yet will have them imposed as part of the devolution settlement. As we have seen in places like Stoke on Trent, Hartlepool and, in the past week, Torbay, the Mayoral agenda can go into reverse for lack of public support and there is an important opportunity for cities and regions to take more responsibility here. Engaging public opinion, not just local and central government elites, is crucial to the success of devolution.

As a former Welsh politician famously once said, devolution is a process, not an event. Calls for more powers to the London Mayor over the weekend underline this. This is also likely to be the case in other devolved areas, as they find they need more powers to fulfil their area’s needs. The difficulty is that few understand where the process is going. The piecemeal devolution of powers, to London and elsewhere, is typical of how the UK state works, giving away powers gradually while retaining as much as possible at the centre. Notably, the Treasury has been at the centre of pushing the devolution process.

The key question, which has been unclear from the start, is what is the central aim of the process? There have been economic justifications – witness the rhetoric about ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘Midlands Engine’. There have been democratic justifications, in that elected Mayors will provide more accountable governance. Some have seen a variety of political motivations, from reviving Conservative Party fortunes in the North to forcing Labour voting areas to take powers against a backdrop of further cuts and austerity. Reasons may, of course, overlap. But if the devolution project is to be successful, a clearer definition of the objectives is vital. Many councils seem to feel the same. Several devolution deals have had councils either withdrawing or speaking out, because they do not understand what the process is intended to achieve. Without some sense of what might pass for success, the roots of the project look somewhat shaky and tentative.

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Finally, there will be a confusion of elected Mayoral mandates. North Tyneside council voted to keep its elected Mayor last week rather than return to a committee model. But North Tyneside is currently part of the proposed North East devolution agreement. There is no provision for whether the North East elected Mayor when elected in 2017 will replace the North Tyneside Mayor. Nor does there appear to be any setting out of what the relationship between the two may be. The same appears true of the Bristol Mayor and West of England devolution agreement, and of the Salford Mayor and Greater Manchester agreement. Current elected Mayors will co-exist with those to be elected as part of the government’s devolution agenda it seems. While the different levels of elected Mayor will have different powers, if, as could be necessary, some form of ‘double devolution’ of the new powers to lower levels from Combined Authorities happens, there is a potential confusion of responsibility.

The institutional design of the devolution deals leaves a lot to be desired, largely as a consequence of the piecemeal approach taken to the process by the Treasury and central government. They need considerably more thought going forward.

Dr Alistair Clark is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Newcastle University. He has written extensively on local politics and government. He is currently completing a second edition of his book, Political Parties in the UK.

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