Chris Game

Even for those familiar with the local government world, it’s not been easy following the progress or otherwise of English devolution: which city and other regions have devolution deals, which ones require elected mayors, the views of Theresa May and her government, and, not least for a PSA readership, how many metro mayoral elections will there be next May as part of probably the PM’s first major electoral test.

If you caught Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement, you might well have concluded that, with George Osborne’s departure, not only is devolution no longer a Treasury priority, but probably not much is happening at all. According to a Local Government Chronicle word count, while the D-word totalled 34 mentions by Osborne in last year’s Statement, Hammond managed just eight. In 12 months it had been relegated from centre-stage to a walk-on part.

What, though, does this tell us? That devolution isn’t among the present Chancellor’s personal priorities is a statement verging on what even Sybil Fawlty might concede is the bleeding obvious. But whether it’s any kind of priority for the May Government or the PM herself has been much less clear. This blog suggests that, in a strictly limited and electoral sense, it may have become one.

English devolution got a 10-line paragraph in Hammond’s 60-page speech. Only three city regions received actual namechecks: London, because it’s London; Greater Manchester, which even post-Osborne remains devolution’s pacesetter; and the West Midlands, with Hammond reprising his Birmingham October party conference commitment to continue “working with the West Midlands Combined Authority on a second devolution deal to include new powers on transport, criminal justice, data, planning and skills.”

The seven WMCA council leaders had been promised second helpings pretty well ever since the first deal – relatively modest given the city region’s size – was announced last November. Still, considering Theresa May’s summer of wavering indecision over the whole devolution issue, it did no harm having it confirmed.

But the real point of the confirmation – in Birmingham, in early October – was in Hammond’s very next sentence:

“And with Andy Street, our fantastic Conservative Mayoral candidate for the West Midlands, now in place, a great future is within the region’s grasp. It will certainly never be knowingly undersold!”

Hammond’s conference ‘jokes’ are a bit like Thatcher’s: distinctly clunky, and leaving you half-wondering if he even gets them himself. This reference, though, to about the most recognisable pledge in British retailing, was a puff for the now former MD of the John Lewis Partnership, who just days previously had been selected as the party’s mayoral candidate and suddenly made a metro region in which Labour have 60% of councillors and 75% of MPs look far from the Labour shoo-in that many had assumed.

Street got his own round of applause in May’s speech too – as “the future Mayor of the West Midlands” – and it was abundantly clear by now that she was seeing elected mayors as a potentially positive part of the Cameron/Osborne devo legacy, rather than the political liability she’d initially assumed. But the conversion had taken most of the summer, as outlined in these pages a few weeks ago.

When May came into No 10, she made it a personal priority to get rid of the second of the two posh boys who’d previously been running the government, and as much as possible of his secretive, egocentric, and – in her view – potentially electorally damaging mayoral devolution deals with northern Labour councils.

Then gradually she must have realised that her very dithering, and the uncertainty it created, would do part of the job for her. Some councils panicked, others bickered, and apparently agreed deals started collapsing.

As recently as July, the soon-to-be-reshuffled Communities Secretary Greg Clark predicted “at least nine” metro mayors being elected in May 2017, and it seemed generally to be assumed that six or seven of them would be Labour. In the five months since then the total and, by my reckoning, the balance have both changed significantly.

West Yorkshire was first to leave, its politicians sceptical about the metro mayoral requirement and torn too between a Labour-dominated Leeds City Region Combined Authority (CA) and a ‘One Yorkshire’ bid also covering predominantly Conservative North and East Yorkshire – very non-metro, but reportedly favoured by ministers.

Sheffield City Region leaders aren’t mayoral fans either, but their bigger hurdle is a delayed high court case challenging whether Chesterfield and Bassetlaw districts should be allowed to break their ties with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire respectively and become full members of the CA. Again time is running out.

The North East was next, split geographically by the River Tyne, but with the elected mayor requirement again a key issue. Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside would have accepted a mayoral deal, but not Sunderland, Durham, South Tyneside and Gateshead.

Greater Lincolnshire followed, when the negotiated deal, though agreed by most districts, was rejected by the county council following a county-wide consultation.

Then there’s East Anglia. The original deal covering all three counties was rejected by Cambridgeshire County and Peterborough City Councils (as well as by several Norfolk districts) and replaced with a 2CA deal: Norfolk/Suffolk and Cambridgeshire/Peterborough, both headed by elected mayors.

The former was scuppered on Thursday 17th November off by Kings Lynn & West Norfolk councillors voting against both the mayoral deal and their leaders’ advice. BUT on Tuesday 22nd, the very eve of the Autumn Statement, and, to quote the excited local paper, “after months of negotiations, consultation and debate, a Peterborough/Cambridgeshire mayoral devolution deal was finally agreed as the final two councils signed up for the once in a generation opportunity” – with the first mayoral election next May.

I can’t unfortunately prove it, but I’d bet my winter fuel allowance that George Osborne would have had that news right up front in his speech, very likely brandishing a copy of the Peterborough Telegraph headlines – not least because, with six of the seven CA councils being Conservative controlled or dominated, there’s a very good chance the mayor will be too.

Yet Philip Hammond didn’t mention it – presumably because he just wasn’t bothered. But I reckon his Downing Street next door neighbour is nowadays very interested indeed in these matters and what might happen in next May’s elections.

If she’d given it any thought at all back in early July, I’d guess Theresa May would have reckoned that the Conservatives could, with luck, win three of Clark’s nine mayoralties: Greater Lincolnshire, East Anglia, and West of England (Bristol narrowly Labour; South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset both comfortably Conservative).

Until last week, the first two had gone, but so too had several pretty safe Labour prospects. And the West Midlands, especially with a high profile, ‘non-politician’ candidate like Andy Street, had come to look definitely winnable.

On those assumptions, you could now see what would amount to a 3-all away draw: three Labour mayors (Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley) but also three Conservative (Cambridgeshire/Peterborough, West of England, West Midlands), with the last providing the biggest headlines of all. Suddenly all that rather tedious devolution stuff must strike No.10 as a whole lot more interesting.

 

Chris Game is Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.

Image: Rik Hopkinson