George Osborne has made it clear to our biggest city regions that having a metro mayor will lead to power. But is that the whole story?
The Chancellor has set the pace on the city devolution agenda, providing not only clarity but also urgency: Greater Manchester already has an interim mayor; the Devolution Bill was launched last week and (hopefully) will be on the Statute books by early 2016.
In response places and local politicians are now quickly reviewing, and in many instances revising, their positions in relation to combined authorities and mayors
. But it would be naive to assume that all the opposition to Metro-Mayors has disappeared overnight. The politics that underpin the opposition still exist. That’s why we expect the mayor’s debate to shift from one about whether to have a mayor, to one about how powerful the mayor should be.
This shift will be helped by the deliberately generic nature of most of the Bill which in principle offers scope for different mayoral models to emerge in different places, ranging from executive-style mayors, akin to London*, to ‘ceremonial’ style mayors with very limited executive powers.
As places consider their mayoral options the temptation for some will be to introduce a ‘ceremonial’ type mayor in order to meet the Chancellor’s ‘Metro Mayor’ test. This would be a mistake for several reasons.
Firstly, there is no automatic right to devolution. So even if a place puts together a devolution proposal that includes a combined authority and a mayor there is no obligation on the Government to accept it. The Bill is clear that the power to agree devolution settlements will lie with the Secretary of State and given the stated policy positions of the Chancellor and others in Government, any attempt to create a purely ceremonial mayor in order to secure additional powers would very likely fail.
Secondly, the value of an executive mayor comes from the ability to combine hard and soft powers to get things done, particularly around more contentious things such as prioritising investment in one place of the city region over another, or introducing a council tax precept, or closing the A&E of a hospital. Being reliant on consensus, diplomacy and exhortation only gets you so far, being able to take action is important.
Third, wielding significant powers over public services such as planning, crime, health, fire and transport at the city-region level requires a degree of direct public accountability that doesn’t currently exist within the local government system. While there are other options for improving governance, accountability and scrutiny, none of them match the mayoral model for providing that direct connection between decision-maker and the electorate.
Finally, at a time when the public have little faith that politicians can change things for the better, introducing a mayor with limited power to get things done, and just as importantly to be seen to get things done, is likely to further erode the belief among the public that politicians can be a force for good.
Having powerful executive mayors will be good for those cities that have them and for the country as a whole. Cities need to be bold and seize the initiative, take the Chancellor at his word and set out how they will introduce powerful metro mayors in return for substantial control of the services – planning, housing, skills, police, transport and health – and some fiscal discretion that will enable their economies to grow, and create the good jobs and provide the quality public services that their residents want.
* It’s worth noting that by international standards the London Mayor is not very powerful but that’s another story.
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Interesting analysis Andrew. And it’s really sweet the way Centre for Cities cling so grimly to the great man theory of history. But the proposition that concentrating power in a single person is the way to promote good governance and smart growth does not stack up. Professor George Jones has pointed out recently that the collegiate team leadership more characteristic of UK local government encourages exploration and development of policy from different perspectives. And a single person will find it more difficult to represent the diversity and complexity of a large city or non-metropolitan area.
Archie Brown’s recent book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political leadership in the Modern Age provides a good overview of practice across the world – and concludes that collective is better than personal leadership. He quotes Joseph Chamberlain and Herbert Morrison as good examples of transforming – yet not directly-elected – city leaders. More modern examples might be Ken Livingston, Shirley Porter or Richard Leese.
Of course, you can point out to some examples of successful Mayoralities as well – Ken Livingston in his (one of) later incarnation(s) or Boris Johnson’s end-of-the-pier show. But the evidence linking specific examples to policy conclusions is weak.
The real problem with the elected mayor model is the damage which it does to the role of other directly-elected councillors and the way in which it subverts the UK constitutional settlement – Parliament is (technically) sovereign and not the UK government, unlike other countries such as the US where the Courts are the final arbiters of the Constitution. Local government reflects this principle – the full council of all the elected members is the responsible legal body. In both cases power is exercised on a day to day basis by a government/Cabinet chosen from the main body.
While it is true that this does not always work well – as the examples in Anthony King & Ivor Crewe’s recently updated book on The Blunders of Government prove. And there have been plenty of examples in local government as well. But we should be trying to re-energise our city governance, not undermining it. Surely we can do better than the old Rowan & Martin Laugh in joke about John Wayne ending the Vietnam war by flying to Hanoi and punching it in the jaw. Superhero cape waving is best left to the comics!