Next week ten cities across England are holding referenda on the introduction of elected mayors. While there appears to be a lack of public interest in the issue, if they are approved this could be a massive shake up for the country’s political landscape. However there is debate over whether the introduction of elected mayors would be a change for the better.
At a time of economic uncertainty there is quite rightly criticism to the proposal of elected mayors due to the cost of introducing the new office. For example in Newcastle alone an elected mayor could cost the city £1 million over four years and in bigger cities even more. This is money that those in the ‘No’ campaign argue could be used for essential public services.
However this is a relatively small cost in comparison to the overall budget city councils have. In many ways an elected mayor could help obtain higher budgets for their city and deliver for the people. Since they would be directly elected by the population of a whole city rather than just a small council ward the mayor would actually have a large amount of authority. While this could encourage politicians seeking to build their ego there is a real opportunity for cities here.
If a strong mayor is elected, which is likely as it will be the most influential personalities in the city competing, then they could become a ‘champion’ for that area. With the authority that comes with the position it would be more difficult for the UK government to ignore them and they could argue for more funding or help for their city in a way that council leaders currently struggle.
Elected mayors would also be less likely to obey central government or tow the party line than councillors or MPs meaning a more diverse range of policies for that city. Just look at the London Mayoral Election where both leading candidates are never afraid to speak their mind. This could be another benefit to the public if genuine debate is ignited on policy for that city or more power is gained for the local government. It could mean less control for Westminster and decisions being made for the city by people who know what is best for it.
It is argued by many that elected mayors will only encourage a focus on personality, and while this may be true, it could provide people with an opportunity to vote for the person who has the best policy specific to their city. Currently local elections are not engaging the public and many will vote for the party whose national policy they believe in rather than on specific local issues. If there is a high profile election then people might pay more attention to the important issues for their city and ultimately they will benefit from this.
And maybe big personalities in local government wouldn’t be such a bad thing. If there is a heated, exciting election campaign between mayoral candidates then this could generate interest in local elections that has been absent for years. This could engage more members of the public and encourage higher turnout which could reverse the increase in voter apathy that is happening all around the country and this would be far better for democracy.
There are reasons to be critical of the introduction of elected mayors, but if the answer is ‘Yes’ next week then this could be a great step forward for those cities.