Is it time for an elected mayor?

David Cameron and the Conservative Party are championing the idea of elected mayors – like London’s Boris Johnson, pictured with the Prime Minister – taking charge of district councils across Britain

David Cameron and the Conservative Party are championing the idea of elected mayors – like London’s Boris Johnson, pictured with the Prime Minister – taking charge of district councils across Britain

First published in Behind the News Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Photograph of the Author by , T&A Reporter

Jim Greenhalf takes an in-depth look at the issue of elected mayors in the first in a series of three articles ahead of next month’s referendum.

When Bradford people vote in the May 3 district council elections, they will also be asked to decide whether they want to vote on the issue of an Elected mayor.

If a majority decide the time is right for a change in the way decision-making is done at City Hall, the opportunity to elect a mayor is set for Thursday, November 15.

In short, this time next year, Bradford district could have its own version of Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson.

But it’s not the first time that Bradford has been asked to consider the idea of being run by an elected mayor.

Eleven years ago, Bradford Council staged a consultation on the issue which resulted in 18,000 people saying they were satisfied with the existing system of governance, but 19,000 declared they wanted a form of elected mayor.

In spite of a majority of people being in favour, they never got their wish. Bradford Council’s deputy leader in October 2001, Conservative councillor Richard Wightman, told the T&A that the local authority would put up a “robust” challenge to the Labour Government’s bid to force it to hold a referendum on an elected mayor.

The Council argued that the majority of people consulted wanted to stick to the new leader and cabinet system.

Elected mayors, of course, have been vigorously championed by David Cameron’s Coalition Government since the 2010 General Election.

It wasn’t always that way. In the past, the Conservative Party has been opposed to elected mayors and to regional government in the past.

For the past 16 years, Ronnie Farley, a former Conservative group leader on Bradford Council, and his partner, Marilyn Box, have travelled all over the country giving seminars on local government to councillors, officers and prospective council candidates.

Mr Farley said: “You’ve got to go back to Tony Blair’s Local Government Act 2000, which made all councils with populations of more than 85,000 move to a leader elected by councillors, who could choose nine other members to form a decision-making cabinet of ten. The old committee system of education, housing and social services that I was familiar with disappeared.

“Labour had been planning for change before the 1997 General Election – they sent people out to America and Europe to look at local government systems. A lot of them thought the system they eventually brought in included an elected mayor, based on the US system.

“My view is that it was actually based on the Spanish system, which has a parliament in Madrid, then regional government and then elected mayors in all cities, major or minor.

“Labour tried introducing regional government, but only got it through in Northumberland and Durham, scrapping 17 local councils in the process. A number of Labour local authorities pushed to try an elected mayor.

“The Conservative Party was adamantly opposed to elected mayors and regional government. There are 16 elected mayors now and come next November there could be another 12, depending on what happens on May 3.”

All three group leaders on Bradford Council earlier this year came out against an elected mayor.

Labour’s councillor Ian Greenwood said: “I am firmly of the view that Bradford district covers too large and diverse a collection of communities for it to be represented by a single individual.”

Conservative leader, councillor Glen Miller said, whereas the Government was proposing one person to stand up and speak for Bradford, “every other single Government policy ties us to Leeds through the City Region. Trying to impose an elected mayor seems to be in direct conflict.”

Liberal-Democrat leader councillor Jeanette Sunderland said: “We already have enough trouble with a ruling executive because of such a small group of people taking major decisions on their own – to further concentrate that power would be even worse.”

Of the district’s five MPs, only Bradford West Respect Party MP George Galloway has publicly called for people to vote for an elected mayor.

Keighley Tory MP Kris Hopkins hopes the May 3 referendum results in “a resounding no vote”. Bradford East Liberal-Democrat MP David Ward said: “A strongly charismatic leader doesn’t necessarily bring people together”. Bradford South Labour MP Gerry Sutcliffe described the elected mayor as “top-down rather than local democracy”. And Shipley Conservative MP Philip Davies said an elected mayor “will only be adding another layer of bureaucracy”.

l Tomorrow: The powers of elected mayors.

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