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A significant change to British democracy is approaching

Andrew Walker, policy researcher at the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), discusses the importance of the upcoming mayoral elections. 

Local elections are fast approaching, and there are some really key ones to look out for this year, not to mention new directly-elected mayors in some of our biggest cities. LGiU will be covering the events on 4 May, providing all the updates and results as they come in through the night. 

There are some important issues to consider in the meantime, however. 

A significant change to the landscape of British democracy is approaching this May. As well as local elections in Scotland and English counties, directly-elected mayors will be chosen for the first time to head up six new combined authority city-regions. It will happen in Greater Manchester, Liverpool, the West Midlands, West of England, Tees Valley, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. 

These new structures have been established to take on powers from central government so that more decisions can be made locally, designed around the needs, aspirations and assets within local communities. 

Changing state & citizen relationship 

This is potentially a very big change in the role of the state and how it relates to citizens. For the project to succeed it will be very important to get that relationship right. 

The teams involved in the early stages of the new combined authorities are particularly keen to emphasise the differences between their approach when compared to that of the office of the London mayor. 

For starters, the relationship with the individual borough councils is closer and more clearly defined. The model that was developed first in Greater Manchester was designed to ensure that the voice of the mayor and the combined authority does not override the will of any individual council. 

In decisions that affect the whole region, the mayor is one amongst equals in a cabinet made up of the leaders of each borough. The cabinet will have an all important two-thirds majority veto power over any decision taken by the mayor. 

It will remain to be seen, of course, how this will work in practice. One of the lessons from London is that the role, responsibilities and expectations of the mayor can change quite significantly over time. There were quite close parameters around the London mayor’s remit at the outset, but over time the role grew larger and the mayor exercised de facto control over more and more areas of policy. 

There is also, of course, the all-important soft power and the power to convene that have been made so much of by a number of commentators. 

The mayors will partly function as a figurehead for their city, to raise its profile and encourage international investment and cultural attention.

Elections this May, or when they come around again in 2020, should reflect voters’ perception of candidates’ success in this area. 

But this needs to be balanced with their success in engaging with local people and being a mayor for local communities. 

Low engagement could have long-term implications 

This is yet to play out. Central government has put pressure on local authorities to set up these new structures, to find financial savings and make service improvements quickly. 

Amongst all these developments and fast change (the Greater Manchester Combined Authority deal was signed off by George Osborne at the end of 2015) the mechanisms for citizens to participate in effective new ways have not been fully laid out. 

So far, people in many cities are relatively unaware of big changes that will affect their local areas and they have had little say in shaping them. But low engagement could have problems beyond low turnout at the elections in May. 

Without open dialogue, the decisions made by combined authorities are more likely to be remote and disconnected from the real needs and aspirations of residents and neighbourhoods. 

Crucially, the changes required in public services (such as health and social care) will only be successful if they are designed around local people and will require innovation in how the state and citizens relate to each other at the local level. 

Democracy in the UK is in a very interesting position, for all sorts of reasons. New leadership and governance of our great cities is one area in which the whole country, not least the people in those cities themselves, could stand to benefit if we get it right. 

Just like last year, we will be ‘Out for the Count’ this 4 May, with our network of count correspondents up and down the country, and we will analyse what the outcome of the elections mean for local government and local communities.

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