Leicester’s elected mayor: Is it time for change?

As the local elections approach in May, Leicester’s political parties are in a heated debate over the future of the council’s leadership.

Photo of Sir Peter Soulsby © Leicester City Council
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At present, an elected mayor leads the council – Sir Peter Soulsby – who has been in office since 2011.

Opposition parties such as the Conservatives, Greens and Liberal Democrats have called for the roughly £78,000-a-year role to be abolished, citing concerns about the concentration of power in one person.

The controversy over the elected mayor position has brought to the fore issues about governance in Leicester. The mayor himself believes that the position has brought a significant increase in democratic accountability.

When we caught up with him at City Hall, he was bullish about his role and its importance to the city’s success. “As mayor, you can make quick judgments and take risks and be much bolder than you can ever be as a council leader,” he told us. “There are things I’ve been able to deliver that were just distant mirages before.” He’s clearly confident about the future, despite the opposition.

The mayor argues that having a directly elected mayor is a major leap forward for local democracy. “People know who to blame. Knowing who it is means they can’t shirk the responsibility and say, ‘Oh, it was decided by a committee or one of my colleagues.’ [The mayor] is where the buck stops. That is a particularly healthy thing in a democracy.”

Pre-1980 Leicester had a committee system, before it was replaced by the leader and cabinet model. It then became mayor-run in 2011.

The mayor also believes that the dramatic transformation in Leicester over the last 12 years wouldn’t have been possible under the conventional form of governance in the UK. “I think Leicester has moved forward in a way that comparable east Midland cities have not,” he said.

Those in favour of an elected mayor argue it improves democracy. The elected mayor makes important decisions and voters know who to hold accountable for the outcomes. This can lead to more transparency and accountability, which are essential for building trust between elected representatives and the public.

Those who argue for the committee system believe that it provides a more democratic process. By allowing more people to be involved in decision-making, it can lead to more diverse opinions being heard and considered. This can also lead to a more transparent process, as decisions are made collectively and not by one individual.

Mags Lewis, a local Green party campaigner, told the Gazette that “the Green party in Leicester is committed to holding a referendum on the mayoral system within 12 months, if we gain a majority or win the mayoral election.

“We pledge to let the people decide if they would prefer a committee or mayoral system.”

The committee system is the most popular alternative among local councillors. It provides a forum for different voices to be heard. At a recent council meeting to decide the future of the mayor role, councillors voted for the committee system over the leader and cabinet model. However, the mayoral system came out on top.

In their local manifesto published in March 2023, the Conservatives stated: “We have been paralysed by a broken system that simply refuses to deliver the priorities of local people. And unblocking this system is what this election is all about.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Nigel Porter said “people of Leicester need to be put first. Governance needs to be more transparent. Corruption is ‘in-baked’ in [the] city mayor system,” he remarked that the mayor’s antics, like breaking lockdown, put Leicester in national headlines for “all the wrong reasons.” He’s on the record as saying: “His time is up.”

The debate about Leicester’s elected mayor reflects a broader conversation about local governance in the UK. In 2022, Bristol scrapped its elected mayor in a city-wide referendum.

Should we concentrate power in the hands of one individual in the name of transparency, or share it among a group of elected representatives? It’s a tough question, and there are arguments to be made on both sides.

So, is it time for change? It’s a question that affects us all. The council has an enormous impact on our everyday lives, from tackling the housing crisis to fighting climate change. It’s important to have a system that is accountable and works for the people of the city.

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