May’s devolution U-turn on mayors

Following reports that Theresa May is to abandon George Osborne’s plans for imposing regional mayors, Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, looks at the reasons behind the change of policy

A recent report in The Times claimed that Theresa May is prepared to change the requirement on city regions to have directly-elected mayors in order to be granted devolution deals.

The Prime Minister’s apparent wish is to avoid establishing ‘new powerbases’ for the moderate wing of the Labour party. It has also been argued that the EU referendum in June was held as a tool for internal Conservative Party management. This is not a sound basis for policy making and nor should devolution be driven by national party politics. We should remember that it’s not about what works for Westminster - it’s about what works for areas like Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley and all the other regions around the country that are set to benefit from increased powers.

So far, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and Lord Heseltine have denied the claims, saying that mayors ‘remain the best way to make deals work’. Of course, this does not mean they will not row back on the mandatory element of the mayor programme.

Though the government stopped short of forcing it on local authorities, directly elected mayors were a core part of George Osborne’s strategy, and attitudes in DCLG seemed to be hardening on the issue over the course of 2016.

Regional decisions
The Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) has always argued that the decision to establish a directly elected mayor should be a local one and that different models might be appropriate in different areas of the country.

Directly elected mayors can be very positive for a region: they can provide a figurehead and political voice for a region and speak on a national platform for the local community. They have lots of soft convening power and direct accountability to their electorate. In a recent LGiU article, we argued that mayors could use their powerful local mandate to ensure that those operating within the local state are accountable and transparent while maintaining acceptable standards.

Mayors provide one answer to questions around leadership and accountability at a local level – but they are not the only answer. There are plenty of other models for regional governance, from a rolling chairship to a committee structure. Two-tier rural areas in particular have found it difficult to reconcile their ambitions for devolution with the introduction of a mayor. Other parts of the country have already voted against the idea of mayors in a local referendum. And, without a mayor, you will still need to answer questions of governance and accountability. LGiU is continuing to explore these options.

Cross party politics
There have also been concerns in areas where one political party dominates around smaller authorities held by the opposing side that a wider combined authority would swallow these places up - leaving Labour-controlled cities in a swathe of blue and Conservative controlled suburbs at the mercy of Labour-run cities. This is an area where LGiU believes requires some creative thinking.

In a Conservative-dominated shire perhaps the post of deputy mayor or portfolio holder for finance and resources could be constitutionally guaranteed to the Labour leader or visa versa. For example, as the only Conservative leader in Greater Manchester, Sean Anstee would be the default head of finance for the combined authority.

By focussing on the mayoral issue the government has unintentionally stymied the creative input needed to resolve long standing concerns about the joining together defined communities. Whitehall will always be more comfortable with uniformity which sits against the very principle of devolution. To genuinely hand power down may result in conclusions which the civil service find uncomfortable. But that is part of the devolution bargain.

A community approach
Yet communities too need to do their part. There has been uncomfortable discussions across the country about merging with neighbouring areas - something which has traditionally excited the ire of local politicians. The re-organisations of the 1990s and 2000s were often met with failure as communities lobbied furiously to maintain their status quo. This time the government appeared to have hit on a clever ruse - leave communities to decide their own deals and if they did not devolved power wouldn’t be on offer.

Yet still there have been arguments about models and area sizes. Local government needs to prepare to let go of these complaints or there is a serious danger that the new Prime Minister will consider devolution an energy-sapping waste of political capital when she could achieve more elsewhere.

It was also astonishing that the former Chancellor decided that this was an area he would invest so much of his own time. We believe it was a far-sighted project which worked on multiple levels; to answer the age old problem of our unbalanced economic geography by pushing the North-West into fifth gear.

It was also an attempt by Osborne to end the generational absence of the Conservative Party in the north after the electoral wipeout of Labour north of the border. Some might see it in fact as a Disraelian courting of the middle classes, designed to ensure Tory dominance for years to come.

Party prioritisation
There is a noticeable change in national politicians’ views of local government. Andy Burnham, MP for Leigh, was successful in winning the Labour nomination for Mayor of Greater Manchester, stating that Labour must field its ‘biggest names’ for mayoral jobs. The response from Liverpool’s Mayor Anderson was direct. He accused Burnham of being ‘ignorant and insensitive’ towards local government leaders. Despite this, Mayor Anderson lost to Steve Rotherham, MP for Liverpool Walton, for the Labour nomination in Merseyside. It will be interesting to observe how the directly elected mayor of Liverpool interacts with the directly elected Mayor of Merseyside. 

The draw for of mayoralties shows that power has shifted. Labour MPs have realised that running a city is a bigger draw than spending years in opposition. Alongside Burnham, Ivan Lewis, MP for Bury South, and former member Tony Lloyd contested Manchester whilst Liverpool saw a contest between Anderson, Rotherham and Luciana Berger. The West Midlands Labour nomination was won by former MP Sion Simon. There are suggestions that Conservative nominees in the contests might include former MP Esther McVey and Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield.

In all of these contests candidates from local government lost out to Members of Parliament. There is an interesting dynamic developing where Labour MPs are realising the power invested in local leaders and how much they can achieve in contrast to a life on the opposition benches. Whether the current devolution proposals carry on as before, it is clear that there has been a real shift in the perception of where real power lies in the UK.

Sadiq Khan left his place on the shadow cabinet to become Mayor of London. 
It is no surprise that Labour MPs have realised that running a city is a bigger draw than spending years in opposition. However, Theresa May’s reasoning for her u-turn on mayors shouldn’t be politically driven – it should be about sharing prosperity and growth as well as increasing democracy and local accountability.

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