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Reflecting the Government’s desire to press ahead with further devolution and decentralisation in England and Wales, the Cities and Devolution Bill is already progressing through Parliament, with a view to being signed into law by the end of the calendar year. But as with any legislation, there are a number of reviews and committee stages that the Bill must first pass, with members of both Houses of Parliament able to table amendments to the Bill, delay its implementation, and theoretically, derail its progress entirely.
The Bill has been introduced into the House of Lords, and has been broadly welcomed by peers from all parties, with concerns focusing on the specific elements of the Bill, rather than the overarching intention to devolve power from Whitehall to town halls across the country. Such concerns have not been confined to one particular party, and could make a big difference to the extent of devolution we see in the years ahead.
Here’s a summary of some of the most contentious issues raised so far.
Should mayoral devolution deals be subject to a referendum?
The ink was barely dry on the Bill when the first calls to make its measures subject to a local referendum were heard. This is no great surprise. After all, proposals to introduce city mayors in the last Parliament were subject to local referendums, and so many politicians and commentators – particularly in those cities that rejected them just a few years ago – are adamant these new proposals should be too.
Arguments in favour of such a move within the Lords so far have tended to focus on the substantial change in local governance and accountability that mayoral devolution deals could represent, with peers from across parties fearing proposals represented a “revolution” in constitutional terms, and that mayoral devolution deals would involve taking powers away from existing local bodies as well as from central government.
The main arguments against were articulated by Lord Heseltine and included the fact that as the Conservative manifesto contained specific proposals for the devolution of power to those places with a directly elected mayor, the Government already has a clear mandate to implement such reforms without consulting again. Furthermore, others have argued that as the arrangements will essentially come into force via a “deal” between local government bodies and central government – each democratically accountable in their own right – why would further consent be required?
Of course there are those – particularly within some localities – who, either for reasons of principle or low-politics, simply oppose the Government’s favoured model of devolution and local governance, and see referenda as means by which to make it far more difficult for change at the city region level to happen. And it is this concern that will likely mean the Government resists all attempts to amend the Bill to include local referenda – although that is unlikely to stop the argument running throughout the Bill’s passage through Parliament.
How much power should be vested in a city-region mayor?
A second issue, in some ways linked to a desire for local referenda, is the perception that the provisions of the Bill would allow for “a massive concentration of power” within the hands of a directly elected mayor. Significant time was given to debating the merits of widening the remit of combined authorities, including the transferral of police and crime commissioning powers, and the implications that doing so would have on the amount of power vested in the position of mayor.
Labour’s Lord Beecham and Lord Shipley of the Liberal Democrats were particularly vocal on these points during the Lords Committee Stage debate, where amendments were also proposed to ensure the consent of the councils of the combined authorities themselves was required before specific powers could be bestowed upon the mayor, as well as proposing, for example, that confirmation hearings be held for mayoral appointments. At the same time, Lord Adonis cautioned against overly constraining a mayor in this regard, and Baroness Trafford reminded peers that the debate should not be about “governance for its own sake”, and that such amendments risked “frustrating the exercise of the mayor’s executive functions, and hence frustrating the very purpose of devolution”.
The issue at the heart of these amendments is uncertainty over the kinds of checks and balances any city-region mayor would be subjected to once elected. Given the enabling nature of the Bill, there is little in the way of specificity as to how this should work, outside a handful of areas relating to things like the appointment of a Deputy Mayor, or the presence of some kind of scrutiny committee. Instead, Government essentially intends to invite proposals from local areas to set out the detail of how this could work within the framework of the Bill, providing the Secretary of State space politically to rule what would be acceptable on a case-by-case basis.
This opens up the possibility of different arrangements for different places, which many in the Lords and the Commons will find uncomfortable, both constitutionally and ideologically. Indeed, we can already see evidence of this, as the checks and balances facing the future Mayor of Greater Manchester – proposals for which currently ensure that individual is only the first among equals on a range of strategic issues – will be very different to the more dominant relationship the Mayor of Greater London currently enjoys with the London Boroughs.
Will the Bill enable fiscal devolution?
Finally, a third big question has dominated debates on the Bill so far – will it allow for elements of fiscal power to be devolved to a local level alongside strategic planning and budget management? Many believe (the Centre for Cities included) that genuine devolution to the city-region level must include more fiscal freedoms if it is to be successful, and yet in one of the few proscriptive conditions of the Bill, it is made clear that “power conferred on a mayor may not include a power to borrow money”.
Clive Betts MP, who chairs the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, plans to table an amendment to the Bill that would delete this statement, arguing that “without financial autonomy, political autonomy is a bit of a myth”, and others outside of Parliament have challenged the Government to ensure fiscal powers are on the table when deals are being agreed.
Although both George Osborne and Greg Clark have so far been reluctant to expand their devolution agenda to include substantive local tax and borrowing powers, it is possible that such an amendment could be successful, given it would be at least in keeping with the general enabling nature of the Bill, and the ultimate sign-off on any such proposal would still rest with decision-makers in Westminster. However, doing so could sharpen the kind of concern and opposition described above regarding the potential power that could be vested in a city-region mayor, and the kind of scrutiny that would be required regarding any ability to borrow.
Across the political spectrum, it appears there remains consensus that more devolution should be prioritised during the coming Parliament, although given the focus is now on the detail of the clauses, the Bill could yet undergo significant changes. Ultimately, the willingness of the Government to accept such amendments will come down a judgement as to whether individually or collectively they represent a threat to the purpose or passage of the legislation itself. And given how much political capital the Chancellor has invested in making this agenda a success, such decisions will not be taken lightly.
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