Does Edinburgh need its own mayor?

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Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are battling it out in a high-octane political contest which guarantees London a larger-than-life Mayor, whoever wins.

There are also Mayoral elections next month in Liverpool and Salford and a string of other major English cities are having referendums on whether to have their own directly elected Mayors – though their precise powers are still not clear.

So far there has been no official move towards introducing directly elected Mayors – or Provosts – in Scotland.

But some argue such a change could give Scottish cities extra clout.

Ross Martin, policy director of thinktank the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, said an elected Mayor would give Edinburgh strong, highly visible leadership with direct accountability to the voters and a flexibility to operate on the basis of a detailed manifesto endorsed in an election.

He said the city’s current 58-strong council could also be cut to around 25 and would be responsible for holding the Mayor to account.

And he rejected the argument that such a system would mean too much centralisation of power in one person.

“Most councils operate on the basis of half a dozen key elected members,” he said. “In the case of the coalition in Edinburgh, the council leader and the deputy have power invested in them and they are held to account by the council. It would work in a similar way with a Mayor, but the Mayor would have more executive powers, particularly over areas like economic development, planning and transport.

“The obvious example is whether the trams would have been managed differently if a Mayor’s position was on the line. I would argue yes it would have.”

He claimed there would be “plenty” of strong candidates for the role in Edinburgh.

But he added: “You want to increase engagement with the public and you can do that by having a big personality, but the personality has to be part of a package that also includes strong policies and the personality cannot get ahead of the policies.”

Mr Martin claimed there was growing support across the political spectrum for the idea.

The Tories are so far the only party officially to embrace the idea. Their manifesto for the local government elections promises referendums in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee “to give people the opportunity to elect a powerful provost”.

It adds: “The exact nature of the post would be a matter of consultation and for each council to decide what is most appropriate for their area but we would expect elected provosts to take on powers of current council leaders, some of the Chief Executive, as well as the ceremonial roles of Lord Provosts.”

Some places in England have had directly elected Mayors for a decade or more.

But the Scottish Government has shown little enthusiasm for the idea.

A spokesperson for Local Government Minister Derek Mackay said: “We are always open to new ideas to boost local democracy, but elected provosts and mayors is now an old idea, with a decidedly patchy record south of the Border. Unlike England, Scotland has proportional representation for local government, which boosts representation and accountability.

“There is also a contradiction between seeking to enhance local decision-making and vesting more powers in a single person.”

One senior SNP insider said the experience in England had been mixed and pointed out that Hartlepool – one of the first places to elect a Mayor – had lost out to Edinburgh last month in the contest for Spanish energy giant Gamesa’s latest investment in wind turbine manufacturing, which now promises 800 jobs for Leith.

He said: “If having a Mayor meant there was someone who could really grab an issue and be the face the company recognises and deals with, then you might have thought that would result in Gamesa going to Hartlepool, but that didn’t happen.”

SNP Edinburgh group leader Steve Cardownie said he was also not convinced about the idea of elected Mayors, which some have branded “power freak politics”.

He said: “It’s too much power in the hands of one person.

“You might get a flamboyant candidate like Boris Johnson, who picks up votes because people think he might be a bit of a laugh, but there are consequences because of the policies he pursues.

“At the moment, we have to secure a majority in the full council or in a committee to take policies forward. I think I prefer that to policies being adopted on the whim of one individual who thinks he is all-powerful because he has been elected.”

FOR

Next month voters in Edinburgh will elect a new city council but the leader of our council will emerge as a result of post-election haggling among the parties which may go on for several days, depending on the number of councillors returned for each of them. Moreover, that new Leader will have a title but only limited authority.

Contrast this situation with what is going on in England. The rematch between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone to be Mayor of London will attract the lion’s share of the media attention but elsewhere voters in Liverpool will elect their first Mayor and in 12 other major cities such as Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield there will be a local referendum to decide whether they too want to change to a mayoral system of government.

The events of the last five years make a convincing case for electing a Mayor of Edinburgh who would exercise executive authority and take the principle political responsibility for the governance of our City.

The trams fiasco was characterised throughout by an abdication of political responsibility on the part of our councillors which started with the decision to farm out the project to a council-owned arms-length company in TIE and continued with a game of political pass the buck as problems and costs mounted.

Does anyone seriously think that an elected Mayor couldn’t have done a better job than that?

AGAINST

It’s very tempting to believe that an elected mayor could have put the brakes on the trams debacle, particularly when a lack of clear leadership exasperated pre-existing problems.

Responsibility, and the ability to dodge it, became the hallmark behaviour of all those involved in the tram project. The council blamed contractors, the contractors blamed the council, and the Scottish Government stuck their fingers in their ears.

No one was willing to take responsibility. No one person was the face of the trams project. But it’s a mistake to think that the experience of the trams alone should guide our views on electing a city mayor.

If a mayor had been in place there’s no doubt things could have been different.

The public and press would have had a single figure to direct its fury toward, though it’s not clear that this would have resulted in the timely delivery of a tram system.

With trust in politicians at rock bottom and turnout at next month’s elections expected to be low, the answer to dissatisfaction with politics cannot simply be more politicians.

An elected mayor would only add another bureaucratic layer, imposing policies and decisions on people without bringing power any closer to them.

What politics needs first is reform that empowers people and their communities to decide their own priorities and the best way to deliver them.

Hot candidates?

Who would be in the running to be Mayor of Edinburgh if the post were created?

Candidates could include:

MARGO MacDONALD: The much-admired Independent Lothians MSP has often fought Edinburgh’s corner in the Scottish Parliament – and won. She certainly commands the popular support required.

ALISTAIR DARLING: The Edinburgh South West MP and former Chancellor won plaudits for his handling of the international banking crisis. But would he fancy stepping back onto the front line?

SIR TOM FARMER: The KwikFit founder has largely stayed out of party politics, but he is a widely respected businessman and could be a popular choice.

DONALD ANDERSON: The former city council leader gained widespread respect among the business community while he was at the helm.

IAN RANKIN: The bestselling crime writer has always taken a keen interest in social and political issues. ERIC MILLIGAN: The several-times Lord Provost and Lothian Region convener gained an unrivalled reputation as the Capital’s ambassador during 13 years as civic figurehead.

No-hopers

FRED GOODWIN: Certainly has the ambition and entrepreneurial skills required but would lose the vote in Gogarburn.

SIR DAVID MURRAY: Might raise our profile in Europe, but would he leave our city bust?