Leading Article: In local democracy, one size does not fit all

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As they moved around the towns and counties of England the Local Government Commission found something startling. It was so unwelcome it got Sir John Banham, the Commission chairman, sacked. It led Labour to decry the Commission and all its works. And what was that great, that controversial discovery? The Commission found, on the basis of an exhaustive set of polls, you could not impose some central pattern - such as "unitary" councils - because (wait for it) places are different. Some are loved, a few are loathed and some leave their inhabitants pretty indifferent. It is a message we need to have in the forefront of our minds in thinking about any plan for the future of our moribund local democracy - whether that plan comes from the district councils or from Tony Blair. It is especially relevant to an idea as attractive as directly elected executive mayors. Let us say it plain and say it loud: a single plan to suit all circumstances just won't work.

Both government and opposition often seem locked in a mindset that seems to owe something to the Norman conquerors of the 11th century, and to Sidney and Beatrice Webb's passion for uniformity and, latterly, that peculiar Thatcherite intolerance of political and spending diversity. It's one that forbids experiments and untidiness. It dislikes hybridity. Yet variations around the theme, some successful, some failures, are precisely what we need. They are very British.

Yet local differences have diminished. People's jobs, their mobility, their expectations of a standard education for their children and care for their elderly relatives has led to more uniformity. But the places of England (Scotland and Wales answer to their own logics) remain different enough. No single template can provide effective services; no one model for town hall organisation can possibly fit the variety of local circumstances. The correct response to anyone, who comes up with one formula for all - including elected mayors - is this. Will it fit both Northampton (where attachment to place is weak) and Rugby (where it is strong)? What might just about work in Birmingham, given its proud tradition of municipal activism, would not work in, say, Solihull, where it sometimes seems local identity is defined as not-Brum.

What is needed therefore is what the centre is so reluctant to offer - space for towns and cities to come forward with their own suggestions. A wise council, wanting change, might even hold a referendum. (Councils already have extensive powers to conduct such tests of public opinion.) An expert body such as the Local Government or Audit Commissions could cast an eye over arrangements for elections and then ... let a thousand mayors bloom. Provided mayors are what the people of X think X needs.

Mayors are, of course, no panacea. Reorganising the workings of city hall does not solve any of the wider problems of central-local relations or the need to establish local finances on a more even keel. It is idle to look across the Atlantic or the Channel and extract one element from those very different political cultures. Starry-eyed admirers of New York's dynamic Mayor Giuliani should remember the granddaddy of urban political manipulators, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago - municipal projects come at a price. Most mayoral systems will need to include within them some arrangement for a (non-executive) council to monitor and where necessary censure the mayor.

What a central local figure or mayor offers is a golden opportunity for inserting local government into the modern world. In that world the media increasingly define significance. What attracts the media and what interests the public is personality. And personality is what, proverbially, local government lacks. Love or loathe him, Ken Livingstone made London government live - and it was not just a question of his milking the millions of rate revenue flowing into the Greater London Council for his anti-abolition campaign. Mr Livingstone did not save the GLC but his performance must rank as a model of what could be. And who knows what might have happened to the administration of Lambeth had an aspiring young Conservative seen his future lie in becoming the mayor of that problem-wracked but potential- filled borough?

Elected mayors would force the political parties to redefine what a political career looks like. Time and again we have seen that dreary move from Mr Big City into backbench obscurity. They move partly because of money, partly because fame is defined nationally. The money question is on the way to solution: the present government (to its credit) has relaxed controls and councils can now, subject to audit inspection, pay councillors what they choose. The fame question is the most teasing, but answering it tells us why elected mayors is an idea whose time has surely come.

One of the most striking sections of that odd glance at the future produced by Treasury civil servants and published last week amid such controversy was its tentative suggestion that the governance of Britain could head down a different road - one involving the dispersal and sharing of political and administrative power, devolving decision making and spending. Down that road lies the revival of local executive government. Elected mayors are no precondition of such a (welcome!) development. But they are a sign and symbol of what local authorities could look like in a new age. To go any further and start specifying the form and nature of mayoralty would be to defeat the purpose of the exercise. Mayors can only ever possess authority if their power grows out of a local political context and reflects its idiosyncrasies. What the centre needs to do is get out of the way.