This graphic charts the history of England's elected mayors since 2000

Hartlepool remains the only English city to have elected its football mascot, H'Angus the Monkey, as mayor. Image: Yaffa Phillips/Flickr/Creative Commons.

England's modern system of elected mayors was first introduced by the Blair government. London was first out of the trap, electing Ken Livingstone – at that point an independent who didn't keep banging on about Hitler – in 2000.

But other places soon followed. At first they were most relatively small places – a couple of mid-sized cities like Middlesbrough and Stoke; some smaller towns; some boroughs that make up parts of other cities (Hackney, North Tyneside). The bigger cities appeared later: Leicester in 2011; Bristol and Liverpool the following year.

Matthew Smith, formerly of the think tank Policy exchange, has turned all this into a graphic you can use to track which cities have mayors, and who they voted for in each year since 2016. You can play with it below.


Two trends jump out at you. One is that mayors are a lot more likely to be independents (grey, on the graphic) than most elected politicians in Britain. Partly this is probably the nature of the role.

But it may reflect something else, too. In more recent years – as the recent elections in London and Bristol highlight – the Labour party has come to dominate the mayoralties. That's probably because Labour has increasingly become the party of urban Britain – but when it was in national government, people were less inclined to vote for it in local elections. Since the residents of, say, Middlesbrough were never likely to vote Tory, though, they seem to have opted for an independent instead.

The other trend is that some cities, er, changed their mind. Stoke's mayoralty was abolished in 2010. Hartlepool's mayor Stuart Drummond had proved surprisingly successful (he served three terms), despite having originally been elected in the guise of a football mascot, H'Angus the Monkey, in 2002 – but this didn't stop the town abolishing the post altogether in 2014.

More to the point, perhaps, the vast, vast majority of English towns, cities and boroughs never bothered creating them in the first place. I think that's what one might call a "mixed picture".

At present, there are, by my count, 17 elected mayoralties in England. But that number will increase substantially – how substantially we don't yet know – when the new metro mayors are created in May next year. This graphic is about to get a lot more crowded.

Here it is. Have a play.

 

 

 
 
 
 

What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.