Future Local Part 5: The future of local leadership

In the fifth part of the LGiU's series on the future of local government after the EU referendum, Dan Garfield looks at the state of local leadership within the devolution agenda and how we might invest in leaders to ensure they have the support to do their jobs as more power is devolved. Other essays in this series may be found at Future Local: where next for devolution?

Devolution is changing how power is exercised in this country. The rise of Mayors in our great cities alongside a decade of the strong leader model has seen local leaders become prominent spokesmen for our communities. Council leaders have grown in perception from volunteers who administered public services to professional politicians who can set local agendas. This essay will look at the development of this role and in the context of further devolution, what leaders need to sustain their new role.

Strong Leaders

Caesar crosses the Rubicon

The strong leader model of governance has now been in place for nearly two decades. Leaders have specific legal powers to form and replace cabinets and do not even have to be the leader of their political group. They can only be removed by a resolution of the council. The Mayoral model, whilst not rolled out in the way that the Government had hoped, has seen strong mayoralties formed in cities such as London, Liverpool, Leicester and Bristol, and in Newham, Hackney, Watford, and Torbay, amongst others.

With mayoralties well-established across the country we are now at a point to judge their impact. It has been generally recognized that people look to clear leadership figures who can speak on national platforms on behalf of their community. It is important that this is not simply a centralizing of power into the hands of one person, but equally that one person is held accountable for local public services.

Some councils and combined authorities will be at the forefront of health and adult social care, transport and most importantly, economic growth as they retain business rates. With this shift in power leaders and mayors are becoming powerful spokespeople for services which are not delivered by the public sector. Utility companies, housing associations, private providers, other Government departments and academy chains will all now be used to a public telling off in the local media by the leader. Councils should become a layer of accountability for the wider public services. Rather than running services directly from the town hall local politicians can respond by acting to ensure that those operating within the local state are accountable, transparent and maintain acceptable standards by using their powerful local mandate.

How is local power changing?

A Stand of Arms, Musical Instruments, etc, Hogarth

Devolution deals have now been signed across swathes of the country. Competency over health budgets, transport, economic development and taxation could develop into a US style democracy of local leaders making big community choices.

There is a noticeable change in national politicians’ views of local government. Andy Burnham MP was successful in winning the Labour nomination for Mayor of Greater Manchester, stating that Labour must field its “biggest names” for mayoral jobs. The response from Liverpool’s Mayor Anderson was direct. He accused Burnham of being “ignorant and insensitive” towards local government leaders. Despite this, Mayor Anderson lost to MP Steve Rotherham for the Labour nomination in Merseyside. It will be interesting to observe how the directly elected mayor of Liverpool interacts with the Directly elected Mayor of Merseyside. 

The draw for of mayoralties shows that power has shifted. Labour MPs have realised that running a city is a bigger draw than spending years in opposition. Alongside Burnham, Ivan Lewis MP and former member Tony Lloyd contested Manchester whilst Liverpool saw a contest between Anderson, Rotherham and Luciana Berger. The West Midlands Labour nomination was won by former MP Sion Simon. There are suggestions that Conservative nominees in the contests might include former MP Esther McVey and Andrew Mitchell MP. In all of these contests candidates from local government lost out to Members of Parliament. 

Perhaps the shift is a return to the pre-war norm where politicians emerged as powerful municipal leaders. Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, Clement Attlee in Stepney, George Lansbury in Poplar and Herbert Morrison at the London County Council. The Labour Party first emerged through the municipalities and it was the Conservative Party's one-nation approach to local governance which saw it finally defeat or merge with the last forces of liberalism. 

Of further challenge will be the local settlements of the power of metro mayors. Council leaders in areas such as Greater Manchester and Merseyside will have to hammer out a complex bargain which assigns power between the boroughs and the mayoralty. This may include specific competencies and also a veto of the boroughs. In practice any such settlement will be difficult to maintain and those councils preparing for a combined authority should be aware of this. The original Greater London Act gave fairly limited powers to the Mayor of London. Those powers have expanded considerably by the sheer force of personality of the incumbents but also due to the mandate of the office. If power is curtailed by the boroughs will they also need to accept that a mandate can often override any previously agreed divisions of power?

What do 21st Century leaders need?

New Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi

As power devolves away from civil servants we need to see urgent changes in the support provided to enhance local leadership. Decisions made in Whitehall are supported by the heft of the civil service, by in-depth policy analysis and research. To hand power down without providing the same level of support could lead to poorer decision-making. If Whitehall is doing less, then the brains of the civil service need to be sent out to our communities to support successful administration. It is likely that the Government will preside over a reduction of civil servants to enable cost savings but there is an inherent danger that they do not recognise the skills gap that local authorities will face. A further obvious benefit would be to send our civil servants outside London. This already happens in France and will see a benefit of a better understand of the regions rather than abetting the current London-centric viewpoint.

Similarly, Ministers are supported in their decision-making and go through extensive briefing from some of the best minds in the country. It makes sense that if we wish to empower local leaders then they should be able to access the same support. Skills and training will be an important developmental need.

In 2010 the coalition government envisaged a cabinet of mayors who would speak for England alongside the Prime Minister. The cities responded by rejecting the mayoral model in local referenda. The Government has maintained a stubborn commitment to the model with mayoralties specifically tied to any devolution of power and funding. The idea of a cabinet of mayors is one which has real merit: a Prime Minister could then speak directly to the cities of England. In order for this to be meaningful rather than a gesture, a cabinet of mayors should be fully supported by the civil service and have a clear set of priorities.

Finally, serious thought needs to be given to the diversity of candidates. There has been an emphasis on how candidates are selected for Parliament. Political parties have prioritized the diversity of candidates at a Parliamentary level but have done little to reflect communities at a local level. The lack of female leaders is something which will need to be addressed to ensure that devolved politics does not become unrepresentative. Similarly work on ensuring participation of people from BAME and working class communities needs to be prioritised. The question will need to be considered that if we have more powerful local states should they also be ones which reflects the communities they serve?

What's next?

We are at a democratic juncture. In 2017 Mayors will be elected in areas across England including Merseyside, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Sheffield. Devo deals outside of the cities have been on a more difficult journey. It is in these areas that the Government needs to rethink its insistence that devo-deals must include the mayoral model. Whitehall is right to urge the regions to move forward in order to achieve greater local power but we need to see more flexible, locally-sympathetic models of governance. Areas such as Yorkshire or East Anglia must not have a mayor thrust upon them if they insist that a complex region would not be suited to this. In the USA city mayors have wide-ranging powers and can represent their communities on the state, federal and international stages. 

Yet neither should the Eastern Powerhouse or Yorkshire lack a representative voice internationally. World cities are becoming more interconnected and act independently of the nation state. Without a representative voice able to reach out to municipal trading partners it flows that regions of the UK will miss out. The need to reach out has never been greater as councils become drivers of local economic growth.

There is a tendency for governments’ to demand uniformity. Structure matters to Whitehall and the insistence on mayoralties in return for powers has unnecessarily held up the process in some areas. To move forward there will have to be give and take on both sides. It will be incumbent on councils to accept that they need to change long-held structures. For the Government’s part it will need to recognise that communities self-identify and will always be reluctant to the drawing of lines on maps. Essex might not want a Mayor but could have a representative figure such as a Governor. A county area might wish to have a Chair. As long as power and accountability reside in that office it should not be a stumbling block to devolution of power.

Post-Brexit there is a need for clarity at all levels of leadership. Communities must have the confidence to forge new relationships with economic partners within the UK and beyond. Strong leaders will need to become even greater advocates for our towns and cities. The new Prime Minister is known to be influenced by the muscular municipalism of Joseph Chamberlain and if this is followed through we could be on the brink of a genuine revolution. Once more, local leaders may be able to solve some of the trickiest public policy challenges our country faces. From demographic change to economic growth, it will be our civic leaders who could provide the answer.