No to ‘superbosses’ (Yes to elected mayors)

by Stephen Tall on April 8, 2006

It’s a very Tarzan proposal: showy, populist and silly.

Lord Heseltine, head of the Tories’ cities task force, has urged his party to shake-up local government by merging the twin council positions of chief executive and leader. Superficially, it’s a clever and attractive notion.

All politicians everywhere – especially in the lead-up to elections – pledge to cut red tape, wage a war on waste, and cast aside the dead hand of Town Hall bureaucracy (and many other clichés) in order to keep taxes low, spend more on services, and let a thousand flowers bloom.

So what could be better than to halve the salary bill right at the top? To scythe out one of those unpopular, superannuated busybodies who do little more than dream up new ways to increase your council tax or the cost of parking. Instead of two people oppressing local residents, we can give just one ‘superboss’ – Hezza’s buzzword – free reign (sic) to do as they wish, and save a salary. Isn’t life grand?

Of course, it’s not as simple as that.

For a start, it’s the chief execs who earn the big bucks, with six-figure salaries the norm; council leaders earn far less – last year, Oxford City’s Alex Hollingsworth received £10,733, Oxfordshire County Council’s Keith Mitchell £34,353. Now imagine if there were just one ‘superboss’: which salary do you think they would be paid – the big one or the small one? I think so too.

So milord Heseltine will excuse my scepticism that this reform will save ‘hard-working taxpaying families’ (another of those clichés) much of their hard-earned, taxed cash.

The jobs of chief executive and council leader are, in any case, quite different: the former is responsible for day-to-day management, the latter for setting policy objectives. To expect one ‘superboss’ to be able to balance both skills-sets is to demand the impossible. I can think of very few chief execs who would want to be put themselves through a gruelling electoral process; and I can think of even fewer council leaders I would trust with the minutiae of financial, personnel, and legal issues with which they would be expected to grapple.

What is perhaps more suprising is that this proposal has emanated from Lord Heseltine, an experienced businessman, whose wealth is estimated at £240 million. He will well recall the corporate governance reforms initiated by the 1992 Cadbury Report in the wake of the Polly Peck and Robert Maxwell scandals; and that one of the key recommendations was the separation of the roles of chief executive and chairman. (Indeed, Baron Heseltine of Thenford is the Chairman of Haymarket Group Limited, but not its CEO or Managing Director.)

It is quite true that Councils are not businesses; but they should still be run in a business-like fashion. Certainly their governance arrangements must be at least as robust.

It seems pretty clear that Hezza is preparing the Tories to become the new champions of elected mayors in our towns and cities: “I believe great cities should elect great leaders and hold them to account,” he says. It’s four years since Oxford held its referendum on whether to elect a mayor to run the city: the idea was rejected by 57% to 43%. I was one of those actively involved in the ‘No’ campaign, arguing (in a letter to the local paper) that an elected mayor would be

“a recipe for behind-closed-doors decision making – for less open government in which genuine debate can safely be ignored. A paid mayor could become a local dictator, able to use their steam-rollering powers to ignore the local councillors the public elects to represent their area.”

Here comes the mea culpa… I’ve changed my mind in the intervening four years. For sure, the system is no panacea, and there are potential perils in electing a local, corrupt big-shot (I’ve already name-checked Robert Maxwell).

But it’s become clear to me that what Oxford needs is a full-time political leader, able to devote him or herself fully to taking the organisation by the scruff of its neck, and who can be held directly accountable for their success or failure at the end of their term of office.

With city council elections held every other year, there is too often an unwillingness for our political groups to make the tough choices needed to ensure this city’s future success for fear there might be short-term electoral difficulties. A mayor would possess both the confidence inherent in having secured a democratic mandate, and also the time to be able to implement their manifesto, and in which residents could judge their achievements.

For too long, city council politics have been in the hands of amateur part-time leaders: some have been very good, some not so good. But all have been ham-strung by a political system that grants them responsibility without power, allows them to be in office but not in government.

The notion of ‘superbosses’ is a flimsy wheeze, an ill-considered distraction. But I think there might just be something in this elected mayor idea.