Elected mayors urged to revive local councils

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The Independent Online
Britain moved a step closer towards a system of directly elected mayors yesterday with publication of a study backed by local authorities which argued that "radically new models" of political leadership are needed to take local government into the 21st century.

"Current arrangements are not delivering what local government is going to need," says Steve Bullock, a former leader for five years of Lewisham in London and one of the joint authors of the study.

Changes might range from directly elected mayors to a council-appointed Cabinet system. But the report argues that whichever route is chosen, a new separation is needed between the political leadership which runs the council and the elected assembly of other councillors, which can then hold a more visible, dynamic and powerful leadership to account.

The model ought to be closer to the relationship between the Government and the House of Commons. Such a change would increase the influence of all councillors, the study says, by making it clear who is in charge and by making it easier to scrutinise their actions and hold them to account.

The call for change comes as Tony Blair, the Labour leader, is expected to renew his commitment to experiments with elected mayors in a speech to local government on Tuesday.

A House of Lords committee called last week for legal changes to allow councils to experiment with forms of leadership and electoral systems.

The present system produces decisions behind closed doors. It excludes the public, which in council debates often sees only a "stilted defence" of positions that are often pre-determined in party group meetings and which cannot be changed. It makes it "extremely difficult" to judge whether a leader has delivered, the report says.

Councillors face heavy, unpaid workloads of 20 to 30 hours in internal committees a week to maintain the "legal fiction" that they are all responsible. The report argues also that there is a limit to how long big city council leaders will continue to take increasing workloads and responsibility for no real pay.

"Most of the examples of successful leadership in British local government have happened despite the system, not because of it," argue Mr Bullock, now with Capita Management, and Professor Robin Hambleton, of the University of the West of England.

As with last week's Lords report, the study commissioned by the Association of District Councils and the Local Government Management Board says changes giving councils greater powers and control over their finances would have to be accompanied by changed political leadership.

"Introducing new leadership models without increasing the autonomy of local authorities will be insufficient to revitalise local democracy," the report says.

Giving local leaders more power but making them more accountable would reduce the chances of the abuses alleged to have taken place in Westminster under Dame Shirley Porter, or in Liverpool under Derek Hatton, Mr Bullock says.

"The accountability and scrutiny mechanisms which would have to come with these changes would have alerted councillors, citizens and local taxpayers much earlier to what was happening."

5 Revitalising Local Democracy: The Leadership Options ADC, 26 Chapter Street SW1P