In May referendums will be held in the major cities about elected mayors. An elected mayor would be a dictator in the Council House, and there are signs that their empires may expand to include schools. This report is about Birmingham but its implications apply nationally.
The key is the amendments to the Act (which are not included in the original version on the government website). They give the Local Government Secretary the power to transfer responsibility for almost any public service to local authorities, as long as doing so would “promote economic development or wealth creation” or “increase local accountability in relation to the function”. It potentially allows local authorities to take over any function which is “currently the responsibility of government or other public authority, which are carried out in relation to the people who live, work, or carry on activities in the authority’s area” (Birmingham Post 3 November 2011, p22).
A blank cheque for government
In effect this is a blank cheque for the government to hand over local public services to a single all-powerful mayor. The mayor’s precise powers are not specified in the Act. Apparently they will be negotiated by government individually with each mayor, which would allow government to favour Tory mayors and restrict the powers of any leftish mayors - however unlikely they might be (although Clare Short is standing in Birmingham).
Sion Simon plans his empire:
The front runner in Birmingham, according to the Post, is Sion Simon, an ex-local MP. Simon is already planning his empire. He argues that ‘An elected mayor should be given control or influence over all public sector spending and assets in the city, including health, policing, transport and economic development’. He says that ‘the mayor should have direct power over schools, including the ability to remove a head teacher and management, close a failing school and even set a Birmingham curriculum.’ In the Post’s view ‘What Mr Simon proposes is a far reaching extension of local government power in Birmingham [which] would create one of the most powerful posts in UK politics.’ (B Post 5 January 2012, p19).
Why does business wants an elected mayor?
While Simon is getting his hands on Birmingham’s public services he is hand in glove with Birmingham’s business leaders. The Chamber of Commerce recently voted by an overwhelming majority in favour of an elected mayor. Katie Teasdale, head of policy at the Chamber, said ‘we see significant opportunities for our members - the city’s businesses and drivers of growth - to deliver jobs and wealth creation if the city is empowered to remove barriers to growth’ (B Post 19 January 2012, p14).
These business leaders aren’t just interested in the mayor’s support for the private sector. They see the mayor as an instrument they can use to give them influence over the public sector, gearing it to business needs (and no doubt opening up opportunities for profit-making). ‘We believe that the mayor must become the crux through which public services in the city are coordinated and commissioned. This will be most critical in areas like health and education where providers and relevant agencies should be required to work with the mayor to an agreed strategy’ (p15). Lord Adonis has been playing a hands-on role in Birmingham. According to the Post ‘He points out that a directly elected mayor of Birmingham will be able to appoint cabinet members who are not councillors, opening up the possibility of successful business figures playing key roles in running schools, housing and transport’ (B Post 6 February 2011, p21.)
The threat to local democracy:
The mayor can only be overruled by two-thirds of councillors. But there is a further threat to local democracy: ‘It is also likely that local councillor elections will change from electing one-third every year to a single election for all councillors every 4 years (B Post 6 February 2011, p21.) So once election day had passed voters would have no way of influencing policy for the next four years, making even more of a mockery of the claim that an elected mayor system would be more democratic.
Labour’s elected mayors to appoint school commissioners?
In December Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new head of Ofsted, called for a network of government-appointed local commissioners with powers to dismiss headteachers of failing academies and strip them of academy status. Of course, if the government’s academy policy comes to fruition these commissioners would have power over all schools, by-passing local authorities completely. The way that Wilshaw has posed it, these commissioners would either be civil servants or, perhaps more likely, contracted out to the private sector, like school inspections. But another option could be attractive to the government: schools commissioners appointed by elected city mayors. And this is actually the position of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, the Progress current. The Progress online editorial on 26 January 2012 says ‘Labour should back directly elected mayors this May and press the government to devolve more powers to them.’ Its editorial echoes Simon’s desire to control local schools:
‘There is one further power that city mayors should be given: that to appoint school commissioners, new local champions for standards which shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg is considering as part of his policy review. As the growth of academies and free schools continues apace, local authorities have less power. While we remain firmly convinced of the case for academies, and believe their freedom and autonomy must be protected, the power to deal with those that are failing or coasting now effectively rests in Whitehall. It should not. Commissioners would not manage schools, but would monitor the overall performance of all schools in their area, ensuring fair access and that local needs are met when new schools are proposed.'