There is rare unity among the political parties of Leeds – no one wants a mayor. Peter Lazenby reports
HERE can’t be many political issues that the leaders of the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat groups on Leeds City Council agree on.
But the proposal that Leeds should have an elected mayor to take over the running of the council is one of them.
All three are against the idea.
So what is it that unites people from polar opposites on the contentious issue of Leeds being run by one elected mayor, instead of by 99 councillors?
Keith Wakefield, leader of the controlling Labour group, is on record as having described the proposal as “undemocratic and utter madness.”
He said further: “It is up to the people of Leeds to make the decision on an elected mayor. In my view this referendum has been imposed by London and is an expensive distraction from the huge challenges we face as a city. Having an elected mayor would not guarantee any new powers to tackle the big issues people care about like reducing unemployment, boosting skills levels and improving transport.
“My biggest concern is that at a time when money is tight an elected mayor could cost up to an extra million pounds over four years. When we are facing huge cuts to our budget it is surely wrong to be spending more on a new political job. The government have imposed a confusing and potentially misleading referendum question. That is why it is so important that people are fully informed about the implications that having an elected mayor would have on how the city is run.”
The leader of the Conservative group of councillors, Andrew Carter, is also strongly opposed, though does say the decision will be democratic as the people will vote.
But he said: “My personal view is that I do not think it is a good idea. It is a recipe for conflict. I do not think it is workable. To stick an elected mayor on top of existing structures is a recipe for a clash and stalemate.”
He questioned the situation which would arise if an all-powerful elected mayor was in charge of the council’s £580 million pound budget, with 99 elected councillors powerless to change his or her decisions, and able only to make suggestions, and at best delay implementation for a few weeks.
Leeds’ Liberal Democrat leader Stewart Golton has been categoric, and was quoted saying there was “no appetite for an elected mayor in Leeds,” and that the proposal was “completely against our wishes.”
He said: “We believe that responsibility and decision making should be taken at the most local level possible. We want to see communities shaping their own futures and making their own decisions. To introduce an elected mayor into the process makes this even less possible as decision making necessarily becomes more centralised and the decision maker is unavoidably less accountable.”
Opponents of the idea of elected mayors express widespread concern over a mayor’s lack of contact with local communities, and the loss of the ability of communities to influence decisions between elections.
Under the current system of local government, Leeds is broken up into 33 geographical electoral wards, each with three councillors sitting for three years.
It means a population of say 20,000 has three representatives in the council chamber. Usually the councillors live in the ward where people elect them, and shop in the same shops, use the same facilities, and have regular ‘surgeries’ for people to raise their problems or complaints. There is regular contact, or at least the opportunity for it.
That system of contact might continue even with an elected mayor. Councillors could take up, for example, someone’s problem with a leaking council house roof, or anti-social behaviour and the like. But in the council chamber where the big decisions are made – such as spending and the budget – the councillors could only advise.
The mayor would be acting on behalf of 700,000 people in Leeds, not for the people in his or her community. There are other issues involved. One was the possibility that the government would impose a ‘shadow’ mayor on Leeds pending an election in 2013, but that likelihood disappeared after an outcry.
Instead the people will decide. A referendum will take place coinciding with Leeds City Council elections on May 3. The electorate will be asked if they want the city to be run by a mayor, or continue as before with decisions being made by the 99 councillors (more accurately by the ruling political group, which happens to be Labour at the moment).
If the people reject the idea of an elected mayor, the matter will be dropped. But it will cost the people of Leeds £250,000 to make the decision – that’s the size of the bill for extra electoral costs.
If they vote in favour, then a mayoral election will be held on November 15. That means more council taxpayers’ cash being spent, although that election will coincide with the election of a ‘commissioner’ to run West Yorkshire’s police – another big change being introduced by the government. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is a challenger for one of the commissioner posts, though not in West Yorkshire.
Leeds is among 10 cities being told to ask its people to decide whether they want to continue with a council or elect a mayor.
Some towns and cities already have them. Doncaster Council, for example, found its powers taken over by an elected mayor who controversially represents the right-wing English Democrats. He is Peter Davies, father of Shipley Conservative MP Philip Davies.
Reaction to his rule has been mixed. The councillors, their powers removed, have little time for him. He impressed some people though by taking a pay cut after his election, saying he didn’t need the £73,000 and opted for £30,000 instead. Wackier ideas included the creation of an English Workers’ Union with the flag of St George as its emblem.
But since being elected on a protest vote in 2009 (there had been corruption in the council), there appear to have been no radical changes in the running of Doncaster. And some of his proposals, such as withdrawing from the European Union and bringing back the birch, are beyond the remit of even the Mayor of Doncaster. Other ideas included the abolition of bus lanes.
Back in Leeds there are some councillors in favour of adopting the mayoral system. It would be hard to find a clearer example of proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas.
One Conservative councillor, who insisted on remaining anonymous, said: “It was a manifesto commitment, so I’m disappointed that so many councillors have rubbished the proposal rather than engage in how it might be improved.”
He also said he preferred the idea of a mayor of a “city region” covering more than one local authority, and more closely akin to the mayoral system in London.
If the people vote for mayoral control of Leeds on May 3 it will prompt the biggest shake-up in the governance of the city since 1974, when today’s Leeds Metropolitan District Council was created. There was criticism of that too, as former small urban district councils, such as Aireborough and Otley, and borough councils such as Pudsey, were abolished, and their powers absorbed by big brother Leeds. That too was seen as an erosion of local democracy and accountability.