January 10, 2023
Last month Gordon Brown published his latest proposals for renewing democracy. Nothing particularly new but it’s always interesting to note that it’s only when people leave office, when they no longer hold power, that’s when they start to have the more radical ideas. One such proposal – for local authorities to have elected mayors – has been picked up by thinktank Reform Scotland in their new report Localising Power. An interesting idea and one that could easily be picked up in the Local Governance Review and a subsequent Local Democracy Bill – both stalled by the Scottish Government despite being manifesto commitments.
COUNCILS across Scotland should be headed by directly elected mayors – who should meet the First Minister on a regular basis, a think tank has suggested.
Reform Scotland said that having elected mayors, who could then meet with the First Minister every three months, would allow for the “voices and experiences of Scotland’s local areas to be heard nationally”.
The think tank made the plea in a new paper which argued for a “shift away from central command and control” in Scotland, calling for a “new and better balance of powers between Holyrood and local government”.
Reform Scotland said: “By providing a forum where the mayors and the First Minister have regular public meetings, there is an opportunity to listen more, improve policy, learn from good practice and increase accountability.”
The think tank’s Localising Power report is published in the wake of blueprint for reform former prime minister Gordon Brown produced for Labour, which said in Scotland “consideration should be given to establishing new forms of local and regional leadership, such as directly elected mayors”.
And Alison Payne, Reform Scotland’s research director, called on Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar to ensure such a policy is included in its next Holyrood election manifesto.
On the issue of mayors for Scotland, Payne said: “Gordon Brown’s intervention is the latest in a long list, but we need to start seeing action rather than simply words.
“In this case, it should start with Anas Sarwar confirming that Scottish Labour will campaign at the next Scottish Parliament election on a pledge to introduce them.”
Reform Scotland called on Anas Sarwar to include Gordon Brown’s proposal in Labour’s manifesto for the next Holyrood election
In its paper, Reform Scotland argued that currently council leaders “can be viewed as a lower-level politician than a backbench MSP, despite occupying a prestigious role running a city”.
The report also noted: “Back-bench MSPs have higher salaries than the council leaders who run Scotland’s councils, including Edinburgh and Glasgow.”
Elected mayors would be a “clear figurehead” for their local area, with Reform Scotland claiming the introduction of such leaders in places like London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester had not only given these areas a greater voice but had also stimulated “interest in and awareness of local government”.
Reform Scotland suggested that Scotland mayors should “be directly elected by the public across the whole council area, giving them a strong, personal democratic mandate”. Mayoral elections could take place at the same time as council elections, while giving voters the choice would mean the successful candidate has “direct accountability to the local population rather than just to party colleagues and voters in a single ward”.
The report added: “The mayor would play a bigger role in terms of representing the area at Holyrood, Westminster and internationally. They would be the people’s representative, rather than a party’s representative to the people.”
Reform Scotland also insisted that there needed to be “genuine empowerment of Scotland’s councils”, saying this could help local authorities deal with the “varying situations they are facing as a result of Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and the economy”.
It concluded that “localism needs to be a priority for 2023”.
Payne said: “Scotland is far too centralised and needs to see a shift in power from Holyrood to local authorities. Although councils run many of the services that are most important to our everyday lives, few of us know who is in charge and who we should be holding accountable. Scotland is unusual internationally in the weakness of its local authorities.”