In addition to the seven powerful regional mayoralties that exist in England, there are twenty-three directly-elected mayoralties across our boroughs and cities. London is unique in the fact that it not only has a regional mayor, but also four Labour-run boroughs which deemed it necessary to have mayors too.
The national spotlight on some of these, such as Tower Hamlets and Newham, has generally not been positive. As the Conservative Party’s candidate for Mayor of Newham, I am firmly of the belief that the lack of meaningful scrutiny and oversight within the current system is undermining the office of directly-elected mayors.
If we take Newham as an example, we have a borough which has had no opposition councillors elected to the Town Hall since 2006. If it had not been for the rigorous investigations of community activists some of the poor and imprudent decision-making of the Council would never have been exposed to the general public.
The scrutiny function of members is well below that which could be expected if opposition representation existed in the borough’s town hall. This must be considered against the backdrop of public meetings of the Full Council which on occasions have lasted for less than an hour with decisions rubber-stamped well in advance. Meetings are called at the whim of the Mayor as opposed to being properly scheduled monthly and routine as seen in most local authorities. In 2017, outside the statutory requirement of the budget setting and Annual General Meeting, the Full Council met only four times in the calendar year to discuss business.
Examining the political complexion of all twenty-three elected mayoralties, you can see how such a situation could be repeated in other boroughs when proper scrutiny and opposition representation is not built into the system of governance:
- Only 17% of elected mayors face a local council where the majority of councillors are not of the same party or political persuasion as he or she;
- In 30% of the mayoralties the elected mayor can rely on a chamber with 80% or more councillors representing his or her own party;
- This becomes more concerning when examining three of the four London boroughs – in Hackney 88% of councillors share the same party at the mayor; in Lewisham this is 98% and in Newham 100% (and has been for eight years).
Local electorates are not necessarily aware of what is happening in their name when such scrutiny is not forthcoming and I have highlighted these matters to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, having spoken to colleagues in other parties. I hope the Government give serious review and consideration to the introduction of proportional representation for councillors where directly elected mayoral systems exist.
It is imperative that organisations running multi-million pound public services, often borrowing treble digit sums in the name of funding local facilities, are given the proper democratic scrutiny which can only be ensured by built-in opposition through proportional representation. Conversely, new arrangements could foster far greater levels of bipartisanship and consensus than we see currently and nurture a fully representative decision-making process where the views of the voting minority are genuinely taken into consideration by elected mayors.
The current directly elected mayoral arrangements are clearly allowing for the hollowing out of local government and could eventually debase and undermine the legitimacy of local democracy. The transformation and modernisation of local government can only continue where overview and scrutiny are guaranteed.