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EDITIONS
London Referendum Saturday, 20 November, 1999, 15:32 GMT
A mayor for the millennium
By John Andrew, Local Government Correspondent.

The advent of directly elected mayors - especially with the strong powers vested in the London model - could have as much constitutional significance as devolution in Scotland and Wales.

They herald a new breed of politician and a sea-change in the whole nature of our local politics. For a start let's get rid of the semantic baggage associated with "mayor". What we're talking about here is really an elected chief executive - not some new version of the traditional English mayor whose role is largely ceremonial.

Mayor's powers

London's elected mayor would set and control a budget of more than 3bn, covering the police, fire, and transport. He or she would have a direct influence over the level of tube and bus fares and could bring significant pressure to bear on the way the capital is policed.

For the first time since 1829, the Metropolitan Police will no longer be accountable to the Home Secretary, but to the new mayor and assembly through a new police authority, some of whose members will be appointed by the mayor. This is hugely significant. Not only does it bring the Met into line with forces outside the capital, but uniquely it gives one politician considerable sway over the way police are deployed.

The Assembly

In contrast, the slimline assembly that makes up the other half of the Greater London Authority will have powers more limited than virtually any other body of councillors.

True, it will not just make up a talking shop. The assembly will be able to discuss and amend the mayor's budget. But to overturn it would require a two-thirds majority - a significant hurdle, especially given the additional-member voting system for electing the assembly, which would make it difficult for one party to dominate.

Crucially, it will not be able to challenge appointments made by the mayor.

Although the government is making sure that jobs must be properly advertised and be governed by Nolan principles of fairness and openness, it will be up to an independent commission to challenge any alleged unfairness.

Councillors elsewhere who are deeply hostile to the idea of elected mayors will see all their suspicions confirmed in the willowy role given to the London assembly.

Mayors for the regions?

The government's hopes of extending mayors beyond London have been scuppered for the time being at least, after Tories blocked a government-backed Private Member's Bill to allow experiments both with elected mayors and cabinet-style government. Ministers are now trying to salvage it.

There is in any case a large a question mark over the take-up of elected mayors outside London. I have detected no rush to adopt the idea - apart from tentative noises in Glasgow and Newcastle. It may be too early yet, but it's hard to believe that sooner or later, regional newspaper editors won't be banging the drum to demand that their area has a mayor too.

Most councillors remain deeply opposed. They may, of course, feel that a strong mayor would threaten their own role or at least reduce it. They also voice genuine concerns about the dangers of patronage and corruption where power is concentrated so heavily in one leader and his office.

In the end though, they may have no choice. The government has made it clear that where there is strong local support for the idea, council opposition will not be allowed to stand in the way.

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