Elected Mayors: A Constitutional farce

Steve Beauchampé is appalled that the electorate will be asked to vote next May without knowing what for.

Birmingham City Council House

Birmingham City Council House

On May 3rd voters in 11 English cities, including Birmingham and Coventry, will be asked to decide in a referendum as to whether or not they wish their city to have a Directly Elected Mayor. Last week it was announced by Local Government and Communities Minister Greg Clark that the powers to be given to elected mayors would not be announced until the autumn, many months after the referendum is held.

Thus voters will be expected to decide whether to support the creation of what could be the most powerful political post in their region without knowing what powers, duties and responsibilities such a post will carry.

How can the public be expected to cast an informed vote in such circumstances? How can supporters or opponents of elected mayors make their case? How can there be meaningful democratic debate if no one knows what the extent and limits of power are for the office that they are being asked to vote upon? Will the elected mayor’s powers be newly devolved, ceded from Whitehall or transferred from government agencies? Will they be powers that currently reside with elected councillors and within local authorities? Or will they be both? Or neither?

To demonstrate how uninformed voters will be, consider the wide range of powers for elected mayors that have either been alluded to by government ministers or sought by local councils, businesses and individuals during the government’s recent consultation exercise. Proposals include: the power to raise local taxes, make planning laws, set the national curriculum in local schools, take control of assets formally owned by Regional Development Agencies, oversee public transport policy, become Deputy Police Commissioner. Which, if any, of these powers will an elected mayor enjoy? Or will they be conferred different powers?

These are fundamental questions and the government’s failure to address them renders the elections both farcical and untenable. When the Scots and Welsh voted for devolution, the parameters of power were clearly defined in advance and voters knew the consequences of what they were voting for. The citizens of Birmingham, Coventry and the nine other cities holding referenda on elected mayors do not.

Thus far our local politicians and media have been shamefully silent on this issue. They must speak up now, unless and until the powers to be conferred on the office of Elected Mayor can be defined and given legal guarantee, there should be no referendum. To stage one under such conditions is absurd and scandalous. Worse, it is an affront to democracy.