Chain gangs

March 21, 1997

Lock up your gold chains. US-style mayors may be about to hit our cities

Tony Blair has hit the headlines by arguing for powerful, directly elected mayors, along the American model, to become part of local government in the United Kingdom. In a speech last year, Blair made it clear such mayors could form part of a Labour strategy for democratic renewal. And last week the Fabian Society published a similar proposal.

Everyone in New York City knows who the mayor is. Rudolph W. Giuliani, an ambitious Republican, was elected for a four-year term in November 1993. Most New Yorkers also know it was a close-run thing. Many expected David Dinkins, the incumbent Democrat, to be re-elected. In the event Giuliani scraped home with 51 per cent of the vote.

How many UK citizens know who is the leader of their local authority? How many know how close the last local election was? How many care? Research suggests local authority leaders are relatively invisible and public perception of local government is not very good.

In many countries, elected mayors are high-profile figures who excite much interest in local government. They attract media attention, help to give an area a sense of identity and foster community pride. They are often big hitters who can influence the private sector.

Three main arguments against stronger forms of local political leadership in the UK are deployed by defenders of the status quo: visible elected leaders do not fit with traditions of local government; the mayor would take away too much power from councillors; and the model has a track record of breeding corruption.

The first argument is the weakest. It fails to recognise that the world in which local government operates is changing fast and that innovation is essential. Although communities are changing in different ways, the law allows only one type of political decision-making structure. It is difficult to see why local authorities should not be allowed to choose from a wider range of models.

The second criticism has more force. Centralisation of the strategic direction of a city does usually happen when there is a directly elected mayor. But is this a problem? If adequate checks and balances are in place there need be no cause for alarm. The key challenge is to ensure that the elected mayor is held to account by the elected council.

New York City has a "strong mayor" form of government and Giuliani has substantial powers. He appoints many senior staff, sets the policy priorities and proposes the city budget. But there are other powerful elected figures who scrutinise his work.

This model is not perfect, which is where the third argument comes in. Recent developments in the department of investigation, NYC's anti-corruption watchdog, illustrate concerns about standards of probity.

The city's commissioner is appointed by the mayor. When Dinkins was mayor he appointed a stranger, Susan E. Shepherd, to the post and she published several scathing reports on his administration. Giuliani, however, appointed Howard M. Wilson, a close friend, as commissioner. This has aroused considerable controversy. Last April the FBI took over from Wilson's department an investigation into the administration's award of $43 million on city welfare contracts.

An alternative solution, which would be attractive in the UK context, would be to separate the executive and the watchdog. For example, the council, not the mayor, could appoint the anti-corruption commissioner.

Robin Hambleton is associate dean in the faculty of the built environment, University of the West of England.

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