A strange new thought for British cities: Pacino plays Jeffrey Archer

on elected mayors
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The Independent Online
THERE'S a resonant moment in the film City Hall in which Al Pacino's sidekick tries to discourage him from making an impromptu visit to the grieving and enraged family of a black child accidentally shot dead by an NYPD detective.

"We've got no advance men," he pleads. "We've got no protection." Pacino is unmoved. "It's OK, Kevin. That's where I'm going. I'm the Mayor."

To a New York audience reared on generations of city bosses from La Guardia to Giuliani, the moment is instantly recognisable. Mayors have clout, charisma, confidence. They go where the trouble is, sometimes because they care, as often for votes. But above all, they are the visible symbol of city government. They are there when things go wrong in order to get the credit when they go right.

To a British audience, however, this exotic creature, with his big car, his staff, his press spokesman, his lawyers, his ability to command television time at a moment's notice, could hardly be more removed from their own image of sober, stolid, unobtrusive, municipal leadership. Birmingham's Joe Chamberlain was, and Newcastle's Sir Jeremy Beecham, is, a fine public servant, dedicated to making their own cities work.

Tomorrow the government publishes a White Paper on a Mayor and Assembly for London which could well change all this. The alien concept of the big city mayor is about to be grafted onto the British political body. And no-one is yet quite sure how it will take.

Sceptics predict an uncreative tension between the new authority and the London boroughs who will still have the humdrum, but rather vital, tasks of running schools, council houses and rubbish collection. They envisage frequent gridlock between the new assembly and the mayor. They wonder why a politician as strategically minded as Tony Blair should envisage a wholly new structure without apparently having yet settled on one obvious candidate to run it. They wonder what on earth a London mayor has to do with the rest of the country. And they doubt how far the glamour will be matched with substance. OK, he has big budgets to preside over - police, fire, transport. But will he be able to raise new money? There is just a slight sense of "why should we care?"

Here an unqualified bouquet is due to no less a figure than Lord Archer. You don't have to be a Tory to recognise that more than any other single would-be candidate he is already injecting life into a contest which may not be decided until the year 2000. The famous novelist has already attracted audiences most politicians would die for.

It would be hard to over-estimate the fury provoked in much of the Conservative establishment by Archer's relentless populism or as many Tory toffs would prefer to see it, shameless vulgarity. From the columns of the Standard to the armchairs of the Carlton Club prodigious Tory energies are going into an Anyone But Archer campaign, but they look pretty doomed. Chris Patten, who would be a serious rival, currently looks unlikely to run. For now, Archer looks well nigh unstoppable as the Tory nominee. On the Labour side the question is much more open. It looks increasingly as if the Blair dominated National Executive will crudely keep Ken Livingstone, (the most charismatic, but from the Government's point of view, politically most difficult candidate) off the London Labour shortlist. Both Glenda Jackson and Trevor Phillips repeatedly recur in New Labour gossip and are highly plausible candidates. On the other hand some ministers believe we may not yet have even heard the name of London's first mayor.

Interesting enough. But tomorrow's White Paper, I suspect, will make the job of Mayor look more interesting still. The powers will be a good deal less circumscribed than many of the sceptics imagine.

The Mayor will have a personal and political staff of around a dozen. The small (around 25-strong) - and therefore quite busy - assembly will not be able to veto the Mayor's highly important appointments to the London Transport Authority or the London Development Agency. Instead the dangers of graft which have characterised too much of US city bossdom will now be dealt with by an independent civil service-style Commission aimed at weeding out flaky appointees.

The Assembly will be able to object to the Mayor's budget by a simple majority vote against it. But it will only be able to overturn it by one of two-thirds. That almost certainly means that it will only happen if the objectors case is genuinely strong - strong enough to attract wide cross- party support. And the structure will be a decisive break with the one-part fiefdoms of the worst British local councils; the additional member PR system of electing the assembly means that power will be shared within the assembly as well as between mayor and assembly.

But there is likely to be something even more important lurking in the small print. The mayoral responsibilities on transport are already be formidable. Indeed, ministers have bequeathed the Mayor some potentially difficult future decisions about fares and further privatisation of the tube.

But it is now becoming clear that he will also have powers to raise new money for London's transport by imposing taxes on parking and, in time "congestion charging" - or road pricing to you and me. This may not sound that exciting. In fact it could change the lives of everybody who uses London's roads and rail links. It means the Treasury suspending its deep hostility to earmarking of taxes. And it could give the Mayor real - and highly desirable - power to fleece the private motorist and spend the proceeds on improving the London Underground.

So this is not just politics for politicians. Creation of the Mayor is the one element of Labour's formidable constitutional reform programme which is distinctly Tony Blair's own, and not pulled off the shelves of previous Labour manifestos. It will be pluralism in practice.

Like changes as diverse as the Scottish Parliament and independence of the Bank of England it hands real power - and also unloads some quite heavy responsibilities - to agencies other than government with not entirely predictable results. Nor should the change stop here; ministers are already talking privately about what a dynamic mayor could do for Liverpool.

The media circus surrounding the mayor should enliven public interest in politics - and increase his accountability as well as his influence.

It will also require a new, perhaps brasher, style of local politics, far removed the worthy, but slightly dull, stereotypes of British town halls. Something a little more like Al Pacino perhaps. Or even - listen to the Tory citadels tremble - like Jeffrey Archer?