City Devolution: A Radical change or an avoidance tactic?By Colin Copus on 28 May 2015
Last week Professor George Jones made the case against George Osborne's plans to to give more control over policy areas such as housing, planning and transport to English cities in return for directly elected mayors. Here, Professor Colin Copus takes a more optimistic view.
On 14th May 2015 George Osborne told England’s cities that: ‘It is time for you to take control of your own affairs’. To which the response from local government was a deafening: about time, too. It is interesting that the announcement was made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Why? Because it tells us that the thrust of the policy of devolution is not a radical re-structuring of central and local government relationships designed to dismantle one of the most centralised governing systems in the democratic world. Rather, the government not only sees local government as part of the problem of public expenditure, but also sees it as part of the solution to economic downturn and a developing economic agenda. Local government, or rather city-based sub-regional government is being re-designed with an economic objective in mind. Indeed, the Queen’s speech firmly linked city devolution to a ‘balanced economic recovery’ and helping to build the ‘Northern powerhouse’ idea.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has built an entirely economic rationale for city devolution, but one which for its success rests on city-regions, or combined authorities, having responsibility for key services such as housing, transport, planning and policing. Then there is the Greater Manchester deal of 10 local authorities that will take control of a £6 billion health and social care budget along with the 15 NHS providers and NHS England and 12 clinical commissioning groups. Drawing together control of all these services has economic advantages as well as placing decisions closer to local communities most affected by them. But a note of caution must be raised, because there is no fundamental constitutional change in the status of local government and the position that what the centre gives the centre can take away, still remains.
Another note of caution needs to be raised about the governance of the devolution offered to English city-sub regions. Combined authorities are just that, combinations of existing elected councils, the resultant combined authority or city-region has no direct democratic mandate of its own. Indeed, the political and governing, membership of a combined authority is made up from the leaders of the constituent authorities – those leaders themselves have no direct mandate on their councils, holding office by being able to secure a majority in the majority group. It is illuminating how much argument has been focussed on the government’s insistence, reiterated in the Queen’s speech, that devolution of powers will go to ‘cities with elected metro mayors’. Yet, this Friday, 29th May, the interim mayor of Greater Manchester is about to be chosen and appointed by the leaders of the 10 combined authority councils, until the direct election of the mayor in 2017.
That interim Manchester mayoralty and combined authority will be one of the most powerful political offices in England with control of the £6 billon health budget and a £300 million housing budget and much more besides. But that interim-mayor will be chosen in secret, in a back room deal reminiscent of how council leaders are chosen and with no say given to the voters of the 10 local authorities involved. Some unbelievably, want to keep indirect, private, backroom, secret deals as the way in which all city metro mayors should be selected – denying millions of voters across the country the democratic right to select who should have control of a huge taxpayer funded budget and over vast tracks of the public sector. Yes, in 2012 the voters of Manchester voted ‘No’ in a referendum for an elected mayor for that city, and so too did the voters of Bury in 2008; but the voters of Salford voted ‘yes’ to a mayor in 2012 – the other seven areas have not held referendums on the matter of a mayor. But combined authorities are very different beasts to existing councils, lacking, at the moment, any lines of accountability to the voters or publicly granted mandate.
It is saddening to see many local political leaders and councillors possibly turning their backs on offers of substantial devolution of powers – something which local government has been demanding for decades - simply because they do not like the idea that voters and not existing politicians should choose who runs the show by being able to directly elect the metro-mayor. The stakes are too high for fears among local political élites that the voters will elect the wrong person to derail the potential that the type of devolution on offers provides. It is absolutely right that voters and voters alone should elect the metro mayor and not be excluded from the process by a system of selecting a leader which favours, backroom deals, unaccountable political intrigue and the worst excesses of party political manoeuvring.
Let’s look at some figures to stress a point: Birmingham, for example, has an electorate of about 650,000; it has 120 councillors which means 61 councillors are needed for a majority on the council and so 32 votes are needed in the majority group to become leader. The electorate of Birmingham shrinks from 650,000 to an effective 32: and some say elected mayors are undemocratic!
As the city-based devolution agenda doesn’t fundamentally alter the constitutional status and standing of local government, or city government and as it has such a pronounced economic set of objectives we are left wondering how it can compensate England for being excluded from the nation-based devolution granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and which is likely to be strengthened for those countries, certainly for Scotland. The answer is it cannot compensate for leaving 53 million people in England out of any nation-based devolution and neither can the Parliamentary tinkering that is English votes on English matters, which does not give England a set of representatives, a First Minister or a government of its own. Part of the devolution agenda to cities is to mask the terror of many politicians in England at the idea of an English Parliament, while at the same time those same politicians, locally and nationally, happily back more and more power being devolved to Scotland and Wales.
The city based devolution agenda may offer local government a considerable prize at the moment and it is one that the animosity of many local politicians to elected mayors should not forgo. It is wholly right for the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, announced in the Queen’s speech to restrict devolution to areas with directly elected metro-mayors for with great power comes great accountability and that can only be achieved through direct election of the mayor. But, the prize of devolution is a prize that can be taken away by the centre when cities, city-regions or local government more generally fail to behave in a way the centre requires. There is a bigger prize that awaits local government and that is to forge a new constitutional settlement that sees local government independent, financially, constitutionally and politically from the centre – until then, just put up with the mayors.
Colin Copus is Professor of Local Politics at De Montfort University. He tweets @ProfCopusLG.
Image: Pete Birkinshaw CC BY