Creating Mayoral Vision, Part II: The Challenge of the British System

Bristol's mayor George Ferguson

Bristol’s mayor George Ferguson. Bristol is one of the few cities in the UK engaging with the ‘mayoral experiment’.

Previously: Part I: Setting a New Agenda

By Andres Torres

Part II: The Challenge of the British System

While the Labour and Conservative parties might traditionally sit in opposition to one another, when it comes to the questions of mayoralties they are practically of the same mind. The argument above practically restates much of the two parties’ already articulated position. They believe mayors can more effectively spearhead new initiatives and design novel responses to the complex challenges confront the modern metropolis. Nevertheless almost all cities that have put the question of creating a mayoralty to a vote have decided against the institution. Most cities couldn’t even be bothered to put the question to a vote, and it was only upon direction from Parliament that England’s 10 largest cities eventually deigned to call a vote on the issue (central government agreed to foot the bill). In nine of the cities the measure was promptly defeated and only in Bristol did the new structure scrape by with 53% of the voters agreeing to the mayoral experiment.

Even in the 16 local authorises currently led by mayors, the situation is far from certain. Two cities (Stoke-on-Trent and Hartlepool) that toyed with mayoralties in the 2000s eventually voted to revoke the system and one more city (Doncaster) tried to ditch the system but failed. This might tempt one to consider the few existing mayors as tentative experiments in a system that might be scrapped altogether in the next election cycle. It is doubtful, however, that amid such a pervasive spirit of localism that the mayoral office will fade away. Nevertheless, the push to convert the dubious has definitely flagged.

Practically admitting defeat, later legislation ensured that those cities that chose not to create mayoralties would not be statutorily disadvantaged and that new mayors could not eclipse the old council leaders. Both executives were to left on equal footing, at least legally. This does not prevent mayors from throwing around some extra ‘soft weight.’ Mayors might be able to join international organisations with more ease than council leaders or might present a more significant-sounding and culturally-familiar title and function to impress and attract prospective companies seeking a new location for a regional headquarters, manufacturing outpost or other corporate presence.

Nevertheless, the British mayoral offices are but an echo of their American counterparts: the budget that London Mayor Boris Johnson proposed for 2013-2014 was practically ¼ of the budget New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg secured for the same fiscal year: ~$18million v. ~$70million. While money isn’t everything, it certainly helps in advancing one’s vision. More importantly, the stark discrepancy in these two city budgets indicates the much broader oversight (and, ostensibly, control) the Mayor of New York City has compared to the Mayor of London. And while American cities also benefit from federal grants, it is worth mentioning that roughly a third of London’s costs were met by central government, indicating the tight tether of UK cities to their national government (by contrast, federal categorical grants to NYC meet less than 10% of the cost of city expenditures). These close quarters might benefit some mayoral visions if they’re in line with federal thinking, but could also crush mayoral plans before they even get a chance to form at the faintest hint that they’re incompatible with the national agenda.

Consequently, even in the UK’s fledgling mayoral system, the opportunity to craft a leadership vision and give it room and support to grow is hardly a sure thing. This, of course, poses a significant concern to those who might wish for their mayor to take a more active lead in matters of design, not to mention sustainability issues, tech start-ups or even infrastructure development. And so it remains a difficult question of how to convince UK cities to adjust their structures of governance (if one believes that the mayoral system is preferable) or how to adapt the existing structures in order to secure the benefits that the mayoral system offers.

Coming up: Part III: The Risks of Mayoral Mistakes