Can elected mayors represent the interests of minority groups?

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As the conflict between Leicester-based community group HCA and the city’s mayor reach boiling point, former HCA chair Adam Edwards points out how tension can easily arise between local voluntary groups and elected mayors.

Leicester is a city that has attracted national interest as an exemplar of ‘community cohesion.’ It is not hyperbole to claim that the Highfields Community Association (HCA), which runs one of the city’s most accomplished centres of lifelong learning, has played a key role in this achievement, and in Leicester’s ability to avoid the escalation of violence sadly witnessed in other ethnically diverse cities in England.

Highfields is home to a diverse community, with significant numbers of residents from ethnic minority groups and large numbers of new immigrants. Organisations like the HCA - one of the largest, longest-standing and most successful community groups in Leicester – are central to community cohesion.

Conflict between committed community organisations determined to advance the interests of their members and local authorities who must field competing demands on limited public resources is the everyday story of local politics. Things were no different when I had the pleasure and privilege of chairing the HCA between 1994 - 2004.

However, the findings of In Search of ‘Good Faith’, an independent report by eminent educationalist Professor Gus John (commissioned by the HCA) found that the deteriorating relationship between the mayoral regime in Leicester City Council and the HCA is threatening the organisation’s viability.

In particular, Professor John’s report raises concern over the impact that elected Mayors can have on the struggles of local governance, with conflict arising where voluntary organisations, such as HCA, seek to advance the interests of their members.

Elected Mayors with executive powers provide strategic political and economic leadership for a city and for many represent a welcome replacement to the complexities of local authorities organised around disparate committees. But can the outward-facing role of Mayor, concerned with city-wide issues and securing investment, nonetheless be responsive to the concerns of different communities within the local population? Professor John’s report clearly identifies this tension as a catalyst in the recent controversy between the HCA and the City Council.

HCA has throughout its history sought to represent the interests of its members - a broad cross-section of groups representative of the residential population of Highfields - by actively participating in the broader political and economic contexts of this neighbourhood.

We feel strongly that there is a need for local council officials, elected and otherwise, to work in partnership with voluntary orgnisations that exist, in part, to protect the interests of the communities they represent.

City-wide authorities, who rightly have to take a strategic view, and organisations who are ideally placed to tailor strategy to the particular conditions and needs of the neighbourhoods they know best, must work together. This is particularly significant in an area like Highfields with its predominant black and minority ethnic (BME) communities facing decades of national and local governmental neglect and disadvantage.

HCA has always pursued this ideal, forcefully and rightly representing the interests of its members whilst seeking opportunities for mutual advantage with public authorities.

Read some of the background of the HCA & Leicester City Council and Mayor's conflict here.

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