Tuesday, 17 February 2009

AGNOSTIC ABOUT A MAYOR FOR THANET

A number of local people and blogs recently have argued that a Mayor for Thanet will make a difference to local government here. I doubt it. I personally do not think the problem is the model. Elected Mayors were part of the first New Labour government's drive to decentralise power and the legislation was enacted in 2000.

There's a popular myth that the last 10 years has seen increasing centralisation of power. The reality though is that no British government in history has given away so much power. Devolution for Wales and Scotland. Peace and autonomous government in Northern Ireland. A Mayor of London with considerable executive powers - sacking the head of the Metropolitan Police effectively. House of Lords reform. Over a quarter of the UK population have seen far more power and control of how money is spent devolved to them.

When the devolution model was tried regionally in the North East the referendum was lost and the idea of devolving more power has largely died. I have argued previously a South East region would not work.

So what about the rest of us then, and in particular Thanet?

The outriders for the local directly elected Mayors model was the New Local Government Network think tank. Here is a list of places that have directly elected Mayors:

Martin Winter, Doncaster MBC Labour

Stuart Drummond, Hartlepool BC Independent

Jules Pipe, LB Hackney Labour

Steve Bullock, LB Lewisham Labour

Robin Wales, LB Newham Labour

Tony Eggington, Mansfield DC Independent

Ray Mallon, Middlesbrough Council Independent

John Harrison, North Tyneside MBC Labour

Mark Meredith, Stoke-on-Trent CC Labour

Nicholas Bye, Torbay Conservative

Dorothy Thornhill, Watford BC Liberal Democrat

From my own knowledge I would say only one of these has been an unqualified success and lead to an improvement and that is Hackney. Interestingly this is partly because there are a number of talented senior councillors, but Hackney's performance and reputation have improved considerably and Jules Pipe has been an outstanding leader.

Of the others I know Lewisham and Newham have been good councils, but they were before and I do not think the directly elected Mayor model has made any difference to how they perform. They have Mayors who were very able Leaders under the previous model and I am unconvinced the directly elected Mayor model has improved their and their Borough's perormance.

Doncaster has been an example of how not to do it, and has regularly featured in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs page which Thanet is now appearing in regularly. Click here to see one example of how too much power can be damaging. Even when there was the death of 7 children and failing services it was impossible to remove those responsible.

Hartlepool electors treated the Mayoral election lightly and elected the H'Angus the mascot of Hartlepool United Football Club as Wikipedia says:

"Stuart Drummond won the election narrowly. The result was greeted with widespread hilarity, attracting attention far beyond Hartlepool. Canada's National Post newspaper ran the headline "Monkey wins mayoralty, regains human form".

After his election, Drummond stood down as mascot. A local story suggests that local bookmakers set bets on the outcome of the election, with high odds against H'Angus being elected, and local "Poolies" being what they are, went out, placed their bet and then placed their vote, ultimately to benefit from the odds."

I also understand that Middlesbrough may have improved. I do not have enough knowledge of the others to comment. Locals though have not been delirious about the system being imposed upon them. Campaign groups have at different times been set up in Stoke-on-Trent, Doncaster, Lewisham and Hartlepool to trigger a referendum to abolish the office of mayor and instead create a leader and cabinet system of local government. As far as I know none of these campaigns have been successful.

I think what those advocating this model in Thanet need to demonstrate, is how, and in what ways the Mayoral model has improved the majority of communities that have elected them. I am agnostic on this and will not advocate change for change's sake.

Just proclaiming this as an alterative model is insufficient, there need to be facts based research to demonstrate this is a model that has worked elsewhere, and why it will work in Thanet. Ask yourself the question do you think having the Leader of a Party I oppose having even greater powers, more money, less checks and balances and more staff to implement their personal views would be better for Thanet?

If you are happy to give your opponent potentially far more power than may be good for Thanet then campaign ahead. I sense that some of those advocating the Directly Elect Mayor model want a change of Leader, rather than a change of system.

UPDATE

I am told that Stoke voted to get rid of its Mayor.

2 comments:

  1. Mark, the current people in power do not work - too much party posturing Those on the other side don't offer much of an alternative (sorry).

    If a mayor is the wrong way to go, what would you suggest?

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  2. Thanks Steve
    Disagree with you about vast majority of my colleagues.

    Short term, less councillors maybe 35 not 56 as now, better pay for the top 2 or 3 councillors to attract more people of working age who could give up their jobs to be full time (I am not applying by the way!).

    Longer term I would probably go for an East Kent Unitary authority removing power from Maidstone. It would probably cover Thanet, Dover and Canterbury. This would give economies of scale and yet still stay relatively local. Would also be good to have local control of schools, Kent with almost a million people is just too big. I also think it has a west Kent bias.

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