As polling stations closed last night, the first swathe of the electorate to vote on Coalition plans for powerful mayors in Britain's major cities appeared to have responded not with opposition, but with apathy. Yesterday's vote was in Salford. In May, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bradford and Coventry will vote on the issue. And while some cities are raring to go, such enthusiasm is far from widespread. It can only be hoped that support for elected mayors gathers momentum, or an opportunity for more dynamic, self-directed regional communities will go to waste.
Ironically, the very indifference voters often show in relation to anything to do with local government – which many tend to regard as powerless and pointless – would actually be addressed by the appointment of an elected mayor. In the handful of towns which have experimented with them, most have seen great impetus for change.
Middlesbrough's Ray Mallon, a former police superintendent, is a case in point. Although controversial, Mr Mallon has at least forced local politics out of the party straitjacket. Executive mayors elsewhere might be expected to follow his example, providing stronger, more accountable leadership, transforming and economically reviving their towns. With sufficient public support, the post would attract candidates capable of representing their city on the national and international stage – think Rudy Giuliani and his successor, Michael Bloomberg, in New York City – to bring investment and jobs.
At present, councils are run by executives or cabinets which are accountable only to local councillors and who are largely elected through the party system. As a result, the rigidities of the centralised political party structure are brought to bear on local government, where something much more dynamic and responsive is required. Because they are directly accountable to the electorate, and can be voted out after four years if they do not perform, mayors would significantly improve the level of scrutiny at a local level.
Margaret Thatcher began an emasculation of local government that continued under her successors as more powers were pulled to the centre. To reverse the trend, and put Britain's cities back in control, change is needed which will involve both strong leadership locally and a devolution of power by central Government. Directly elected mayors would mean a very real redistribution of authority, potentially as significant as the devolution of powers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
A corollary benefit, of course, is the knock-on improvement in the calibre of councillors. At present, sadly few people with drive, ambition and ability are prepared to put themselves forward for the job, leaving local government too often mediocre. The election of strong mayors would break this vicious circle. Indeed, if David Cameron is truly serious, he might even consider broadening the scope of the office to take in policy areas as diverse as the economy, transport, environmental issues, policing and even health.
Were contests such as that gearing up in London between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone to be replicated in cities and towns across the nation, it would be a welcome reinvigoration of local democracy. There would also be a direct impact on the everyday lives of voters, giving new life to Britain's local government. The electorate might set more store by the ballot box, if it was more evident who was in charge and what changes they could make. Strong, directly elected mayors in British cities would be a wholly positive move, not least in dispelling the disengagement that blights so many council elections. Without them, apathy will win.