In England, all but 15 of the 326 councils are led by a council leader elected by their fellow councillors. Since 2002 a small number, as well as Greater London, have been led by mayors elected directly by local voters. Most of the elected mayors in England have responsibility for all local services, with two district council mayors responsible for only environment, planning and housing.
Under the Local Government Act 2000, any local council in England could hold a referendum on the introduction of a directly elected mayor, either by citizen petition or council decision. Since the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, councils have been allowed to introduce the system without a referendum, with currently only two (Leicester and Liverpool) doing so. Stoke on Trent, which introduced the system in 2002, was the first to abolish it by referendum in 2008, as it was attributed to the poor governance in the city, alongside other issues. In 2012 Hartlepool followed suit as a result of a referendum initiated by citizen petition, with the council being run under the previous committee system from May 2013.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are no directly elected mayors, as the devolved administrations have chosen not to introduce the system. Local councils in Scotland are presided over by either a provost or lord provost – from the French prévôt - and in Wales and Northern Ireland by a mayor or lord mayor. All such posts are ceremonial, with council leaders acting as political head of the administration.
Scotland’s civic heads are elected councillors before they take on the apolitical role of provost or convener. They have to shoulder a lot of responsibility and often without much support, which is one of the reasons why the Scottish Provosts’ Association was relaunched. It is also hoped the association will enable provosts to be even more effective in their role as civic heads, as well as helping encourage better voter turnout in council elections and to rejuvenate local democracy in Scotland.
Councillor Graham Garvie, convener of Scottish Borders Council, has been appointed president of the association. Councillor Malcolm Bell, convener of Shetland Islands Council, takes up the role of vice president while Councillor Tom Kerr, provost of West Lothian Council, has been appointed secretary.
Garvie said: “Everybody knows that councils deliver key services in their communities but often the vital role of the civic head as a community ambassador in these same communities can be somewhat overlooked, and it is primarily for this reason that the Scottish Provosts’ Association is being recreated.
“Scotland has a very long tradition of local civic government and the value of a non-party-political association of provosts as a defender of the institution of local government and the idea of local democracy cannot be underestimated.
“The purpose of the association is not party political, it’s the opposite. We’re in the business of promoting local government and we want to support the whole concept of civic government.
“We’ve reformed ourselves to do a number of things. It’s about mutual support but really, we have a concern about the status and role of local government in Scotland. It’s diminished over decades under various governments and that’s reflected in the polls, people are realising the powers of councils and councillors are diminished and turnouts are going down, election by election. It’s an issue we’ve come together to address.
“We feel we’ll be able to work alongside and add value to the important work COSLA does, that’s political work but we want to add value to the whole concept of local government and promote its existence and enhancement over the coming years. This has been much diminished over the years, many services have been centralised, which we think is undemocratic. It doesn’t happen in any other country in western Europe which we’re aware of and it’s a trend which must be reversed.”
The key work of the association will be to advance the wellbeing of Scottish local democracy and the people of Scotland, while also providing a forum for civic heads to pool their experiences, and facilitating training in their apolitical role. It will also aim to promote understanding of the differences in the respective roles of civic head and the council leader and other council political appointees.
The role of provost was established in Scotland in 1126 by King David I of Scotland, to administer the country’s ancient burghs. In the succeeding years, provosts played a significant role in Scottish history, with varying degrees of power and influence. The office of provost disappeared from the landscape in 1975 when the burghs disappeared but it has gradually been reintroduced over the years, becoming a ceremonial role. Most of the civic heads in Scotland’s 32 councils are called provost, with a few designated convener, while in the main cities, those taking on the role are called lord provost.
The Scottish Provosts’ Association was initially created in 2005 but its newly revised constitution aims to bring focus to the organisation, while also collaborating with other organisations such as COSLA and the Scottish Government.
Speaking at the relaunch of the association, Kerr, who has been provost in West Lothian for seven years, told Holyrood: “One of the first pieces of advice I was given from our previous chief executive was ‘remember, you are the face of West Lothian Council and you will be the face of West Lothian’. When you have that chain of office on, you are representing all of the people of your council area. It’s quite a responsibility, as much as we’re all politicians and we’re all active politicians and we play a part in our political parties, when we are in our role of provost then we have to remember that particular piece of advice.
“The broad spectrum of roles you have as provost makes it a very interesting job but it gives you tremendous responsibility. In the civic role, you could be attending diamond wedding anniversaries, while alternatively, you could be in the highly politically charged situation chairing a full council meeting. For new people coming into the role, it’s a different environment. After being used to the adversarial, party political situation as a normal councillor, you’ve got to take a step back.”
Malcolm Bell was elected as an independent councillor in 2012 and went straight into the convener role. He said: “It’s a massive step, you’re keeper of the constitution, you have to be fair and reasonable, talking to all sides, keeping things smooth and moving during meetings. There’s also a pastoral role in terms of almost councillors’ counsellor in some ways. You can only do that effectively and build trust by being scrupulously impartial.
“I think it’s important that there’s an apolitical focus above the hurly burly of everyday politics. At a local level, that’s very helpful as well to have someone who can be the keeper of the constitution as it were. What I found when I was appointed was there was literally nowhere I could turn to get the advice. That’s why it is important to pool our resources and experiences and relaunch an association.”