Britain’s run with elected city mayors yields positive results but few takers

Robin Hambleton

Citiscope’s urban innovation feature this week is a profile of George Ferguson, the first directly elected mayor for Bristol, England. The idea of having elected mayors with executive powers is relatively new in the UK. I caught up with Robin Hambleton, an expert on local governance in Britain — and a Bristol resident — to find out how that experiment is going.

Hambleton is a professor of city leadership at the University of the West of England, and director of Urban Answers, a consulting firm that works with city leaders in the UK and internationally on public management. He’s also the author of the forthcoming book Leading the Inclusive City, due out in November.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Swope: Before we get to Bristol, let’s start with a little history. Where did the idea for elected mayors in Britain come from?

Robin Hambleton: Basically, the idea of introducing directly elected mayors into the UK was talked about in the 1980s but nothing happened. The key turning point was 1997 when the New Labor government was elected, led by Tony Blair. I was one of the academic advisors to the New Labor government including Prime Minister Blair, who as you know was quite a presidential kind of leader in his approach to national politics, which was really quite new to the UK. And that idea of visible high profile strong leadership was something the Prime Minister wanted to see introduced into local government.

In relation to local democracy the first significant achievement of New Labor was to pass the Greater London Authority Act in 1999. That created the Greater London Authority, which introduced the first ever directly elected mayor in UK history. That was in 2000, and the first mayor was Ken Livingstone who was elected in 2000 and elected again in 2004. We have a four-year term in mayoral elections in London. Then Boris Johnson became mayor in 2008 and again defended the position in 2012.

The London changes were very important. Before 2000, it was quite hard to have a sensible conversation in Britain about the possibilities of a directly elected mayor. It was seen as a foreign thing that other countries did. Once you had a London experience to draw on, it helped other places see the possibilities. Because London was a success story.

Q: Why do you say it was a success?

A: Well, before 2000, the system of governance in London was extremely fragmented. There was no metropolitan organization at all. It was a shambles, to be honest. So now you had a strategic authority with a directly elected mayor able to take difficult decisions and take a longer view about the metropolis, with the legitimacy to lead which flows from direct election. That’s the key thing in the literature — people with that kind of legitimacy can make difficult decisions. Of course, you can have a bad mayor. But if you have a competent person, ideally a really inspirational leader, they can make a big difference.

For me, a good story to back this is the way Ken Livingstone was able to introduce a congestion charge for motorists going into the city. This was in 2003. It was seen as a new tax, and the opposition was vitriolic in the London evening paper, and from the Conservative Party, motoring organisations and business. Most people would’ve buckled and not done it. Ken Livingstone’s own advisers told him not to do it because it would be a vote loser. But being a strong politician, went ahead. And of course, it transformed the center of London, suddenly it was a much less busy place. He put funds into transport, the quality of life in the city improved and then his voter turnout went up in 2004.

It’s a good example of a city leader ignoring the focus groups and all the opposition and making a major improvement in the city. And now people come from all over the world to London to figure out how on earth do you manage to create a congestion charge, we’d love to do that. And part of the answer is to have a strong metropolitan mayor who can take tough decisions.

Q: How did elected mayors progress from being a London phenomenon to other cities?

A: There’s two things happened at once. One was that London legislation, and that’s been a success story. The other side is not so impressive. At the same time as we created the new London Authority, there was a Local Government Act in 2000 that enabled any local authority in the country to have a directly elected mayor if they wanted. So it was permissive legislation — about 400 local authorities could have decided to do that, although cities of less than 85,000 people were excluded.

“Of course, you can have a bad mayor. But if you have a competent person, ideally a really inspirational leader, they can make a big difference.”

The disappointing news is less than 20 local authorities have gone for the mayoral model in the entire period since 2000. So there’s a little bit of conservatism perhaps — I don’t mean that with a big C — just of cautiousness in local government where they didn’t feel able to make that step. So it’s been a little bit disappointing for those of us who thought it would be a good thing to do.

The coalition government elected in May 2010 passed a Localism Act in December 2011 that required the 12 largest English cities outside London to have a referendum. And that’s why George Ferguson became our mayor in 2012.  First, we as a city voted yes, we want directly elected mayor. Second, the subsequent election attracted 15 mayoral candidates. And George, to his credit, ran a very good campaign operating as an independent. That’s very unusual in British politics, to have an independent person, who’s not in a party, win a city leadership election.

The UK experience is interesting because we have some successes and also some setbacks. I don’t think it’s dead. Some people were saying it’s a London thing, it’s not happening anywhere else, and that’s not true now. You’ve got Bristol decided to go for it, and the other big city to adopt the mayoral model recently is Liverpool. So I would expect more cities to follow in the future.

Q: Yet the idea failed pretty overwhelmingly in the referendums cities held on it. Why was that?

A: You’re quite right, ten cities in the end had a referendum in May 2012 on whether to have a mayor or not. Nine said no thank you and one, Bristol, said yes.

There are several reasons. I think the government didn’t really explain very well to citizens what was at stake. So citizens weren’t well informed.

There’s also naturally a tendency for those in power to campaign against anything that might disrupt their power. Party politics is very significant in local politics in Britain. So part of the explanation was the party machines were quite active in campaigning against it.

“Some people were saying it’s a London thing, it’s not happening anywhere else, and that’s not true now. You’ve got Bristol decided to go for it …. I would expect more cities to follow in the future. ”

Again, it does make the Bristol story rather interesting. George took on all the political parties and beat them.

Q: How powerful are mayors in Britain?

A: The formal powers of the mayors that we’ve introduced are virtually identical to the formal powers of what we used to have before, what we called the Leader of the Council. So you could say that there’s not a lot of additional power been granted by government to those cities that choose to have mayors. That may be one reason why there wasn’t so much enthusiasm.

There’s certainly no extra money. In our country, if the central government wants something to happen, they’ll often try to sweeten the deal and offer incentives. There’s been none of that to encourage elected mayors this time round. So if you choose to have a mayor, you do it because you believe it’s a good model of governance and not for any other benefit.

In formal power terms, George and the other mayors we’ve got haven’t got much in terms of hard power – meaning real legal and fiscal muscle. Compared with, say Chicago or New York, there’s no comparison. So British mayors are more dependent on soft power to win support.

However, you can’t get rid of them — that is a power in a way. If you’ve been elected four years, you can put pressure on your city councillors to work with you. Otherwise, you can put them in the light of being disruptive and not wanting to work for the city. George uses that quite a bit.

All these authorities that don’t have mayors have what we call cabinet government. The leader of the authority chairs a group of councillors who are the cabinet. What’s unusual in Bristol is George calls his a “rainbow cabinet”. So he has on his cabinet members of all parties — Conservative, Labor, Liberal Democrat and Green. Normally, say he was a Labor mayor, he would have a Labor cabinet and the other politicians would be critiquing the performance of his governing arrangement and his performance as a leader. George has got some of his strong opponents in his cabinet.

Q: He actually has people who stood against him for mayor in his cabinet?

A: Correct. In fact, his deputy mayor is a Conservative, Geoff Gollop. He’s looking after the financial side of the city, working with George. He was the Conservative candidate for Mayor. So it is quite interesting.

But if you think about it, if you were wanting to topple George in the next election, you’d have to think quite carefully about how to behave. Do you just put obstacles in the path and get a reputation for being unhelpful? Or do you help the mayor?

“The budget cuts in British local government are unprecedented in the 30-odd years I’ve been involved in this field.”

At this point, I do think the cabinet is working quite well — I don’t want to say everyone’s happy about everything, no, politicians have different views. But I do think a lot of good work has been done by all parties in the cabinet, and I think George has managed to make quite a creative group even though they have big differences politically.

Q: How’s he doing?

A: I think George has done quite well in a difficult situation. The budget cuts in British local government are unprecedented in the 30-odd years I’ve been involved in this field. So his constraints are very difficult to visualize.

Q: And does that budget situation roll downhill from Westminster, or is it weakness in some kind of local tax base?

A: The coalition government has what it calls its austerity program, so it’s cut local government very, very severely in the last few years. And it’s still cutting. So to give you an example, George becomes mayor, he immediately had to cut the budget by close to 10 percent. He’s got to cut it 10 percent this year, 10 percent next year, 10 percent the next. On a revenue budget of £360 million, he’s having to take £35 million out each year. That is a staggering level of cuts.

Notwithstanding all that, George has been very entrepreneurial about bringing forth new ideas, and doing creative things that don’t cost money, like the Make Sunday Special arrangement, where he removes traffic from streets in center of city and makes the space available for public use – community activities, street performers and fun stuff. This has been very popular. That’s not his own idea. He’s the first to admit it and credit Bordeaux, that’s where he found it first.

We’ve been commissioned to do some research on the impact of the mayoral form of governance in the city. We think it’s the first before-and-after study of mayoral governance anywhere in the world. We’ve tried to find other examples and we can’t find any.


In George Ferguson, Bristol’s first elected mayor is also its innovator-in-chief

Interview with George Ferguson

Car-free Sundays in Bristol

With ‘Bristol Pound’ locals keep currency and wealth close to home

Robin Hambleton on Britain’s experiment with directly elected mayors

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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