Comment Blog 8 November, 2023

Why do some councils say no to directly elected mayors?

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy
Rachael Powell
Research Assistant

It is full steam ahead for devolution in England — or, at least, that may be what central government would like to say. Despite broad consensus on the need to devolve power to local areas, the most significant devolution of powers to regional ‘combined authorities’ always comes with a condition that many in existing local authorities find questionable: the requirement for a directly elected mayor.

From the perspective of central government, the introduction of a mayor can simplify and clarify accountability. But many locals are sceptical of the introduction of another politician who would seem to hold a lot of power, of the risks of wider reorganisation, and of the reductive way that combined authorities might ‘lump together’ diverse local identities.

Local identity

In Cornwall, a devolution deal involving a directly elected mayor was scrapped in April this year, and the council are instead going ahead with a less ambitious ‘level two’ devolution deal. Protests demanding a referendum on the matter broke out in Cornwall as the council deliberated whether holding one would be worth the cost.

Ultimately the question of introducing an elected mayor was put to a public consultation, which found that 69 per cent of Cornish residents were against the idea. Following this consultation, Cornwall County Council abandoned the level three devolution deal, although this meant that Cornwall would not receive a £360 million mayoral investment fund.

For anyone who knows Cornish culture, rejecting a mayor is perhaps a surprise. Since 2014, the Government has recognised the Cornish as a national minority, giving them the same status as the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish. Cornish MP George Eustice suggested that the mayor could provide a “powerful voice” for this minority and their region.

The Cornish peninsula is a unique geographic region, with its own needs and challenges: transport, tourism, second homes, fishing, and farming, to name a few. As Cornish Councillor Colin Martin said, “it’s obvious that most people support extra money and power being given to Cornwall.” Yet implementing a mayor was seen as too large a price to pay, even though it would have meant greater power and a large investment fund.

This reaction challenges any simple view about people in Cornwall and their sense of identity. Many do not define themselves by their county so much as their more immediate locality. George Eustice also expressed doubts that one person could represent the entirety of Cornwall: “Can our historic ‘one and all’ culture be represented in a ‘one for all’ system of democratic accountability?”

The mayor of St Just, a town in Cornwall, said that politicians in Westminster do not understand the local governance model, and that it does not need to be changed. This suggests that more acceptable devolution deals may need to feel community-grown — despite the obvious opportunities of a level three devolution deal for Cornwall, the perception that a mayor was being “enforced” from above was enough to kill the idea.

Too much power?

Some of the responses to the Cornwall plans included concerns from some in local government that a mayor would prove too powerful and too hard to remove: a regional mayor would seem to not be local enough, and put too much power into the hands of one person. As the mayor of Camborne, a town in Cornwall, suggested, the idea of a Cornish mayor was “all about concentrating power into fewer and fewer hands.”

If one of the sticking points is indeed that directly elected mayors are too powerful, then this would to some extent be a misconception. Metro mayors have limited executive power. For most combined authorities, many large decisions require unanimous agreement from the Cabinet (that is, the leaders of constituent councils), and most mayoral decisions (including the budget) can be revoked by a two-thirds Cabinet majority. Privately, some combined authority mayors say that they have too little power to get things done, as they are constrained by their Cabinet and scrutiny committees.

Risks of reorganisation

In March 2023, Michael Gove suggested that a directly elected mayor may not work everywhere. Indeed, the mayors in city regions such as Greater Manchester and West Midlands are very successful: they have raised the profile of their respective areas and brought in investment and better transport. There is, however, something to be said about whether we can expect the same model to work for rural counties. Most areas currently seeking a non-mayoral devolution deal are rural (e.g., Cornwall, Devon, Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire, and Lancashire). Perhaps this indicates that directly elected mayors are seen to be for city regions, and will not fit a geographically larger rural area.

In 2016, negotiations to create a mayoral combined authority fell through when councils opposed the introduction of an elected mayor — dubbed “Geordie Boris” during a time when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London. The North East mayor was rejected due to concerns over the funding after the decision to leave the EU — but other worries will also have played a part. Next year, a larger combined authority — with an elected mayor — will nevertheless absorb the whole region.

One off-putting factor for some places is that the arrival of a combined authority mayor may herald the reorganisation of existing local government structures, particularly in two-tier areas. As one (largely sympathetic) local authority chief executive recently told us, “there is a role for someone to step into [more rural places] and make the harder strategic decisions at the regional scale … but we already have three tiers of local government, including parish councils, and you’d be adding another layer on top of that. Which implies the need for local government reorganisation: single-tier, with a combined authority over the top, like in urban areas.”

This ‘unitarisation’ in two-tier areas would be an unappetising prospect for some within local government and some devolution deals are already incorporating discussions about such local reorganisation.

Where next?

The role of directly elected mayor is new to England — and we can expect it to keep evolving, especially as it is introduced to more rural regions. The ambition stands to eventually introduce combined authorities everywhere, and for now the greatest autonomy is still reserved for those with a directly elected mayor. This means that, ultimately, local people and leaders will be asked to decide whether to introduce a directly elected mayor — or be left behind as regional government advances.