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Dale’s Devo Diary: Peers slam mayors, Rogers rails against ‘government diktat’

Dale’s Devo Diary: Peers slam mayors, Rogers rails against ‘government diktat’

🕔25.Jun 2015

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which will change the face of local government by paving the way for elected metro mayors to preside over combined authority city regions, has begun its committee stage in the House of Lords.

Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale begins a regular series of briefings on the passage of this ground-breaking piece of legislation.

As could have been predicted, peers were chiefly concerned with mayors, questioning the powers to be handed to them and challenging the Government’s insistence that combined authorities must have elected mayors to get devolution in full.

If the Bill passes into law unchanged, the Communities Secretary will be able to force a combined authority to adopt an elected mayor and will have the power to remove a dissenting council from the combined authority.

The Communities Secretary may also order that a combined authority takes on the functions of another public authority in the same area, either instead of that authority or in partnership. This appears to pave the way for the devolution of responsibility for health as agreed with the Greater Manchester combined authority.

A series of amendments moved by Liberal Democrat and Labour peers proposed various safeguards limiting mayoral powers, questioning the legitimacy of elected mayors, and attempting to restrict the salaries to be paid to mayors.

All of the amendments were debated and then withdrawn. Opposition peers will wait until the Report Stage to discover whether the Government has taken on board any of the proposed changes.

Incidentally, Birmingham city council chief executive Mark Rogers has emerged as a big fan of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper he described the bill as “the legislative treat that will really change people’s lives for the better across the country”, and urged local areas to “go hell for leather” in liberating cities and city regions from “the inertia of central government diktat”.

Meanwhile, during day one of the House of Lords Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill committee stage:

Local Government Minister Baroness Williams opposed a Liberal Democrat amendment requiring the Secretary of State to be satisfied:

local government electors of the area of the proposed or existing combined authority were consulted by the appropriate authorities on the area’s proposal to adopt a devolution deal with a mayor.

The amendment, tabled by Lord Shipley (Lib Dem) sought to ensure that any devolution deals were not too prescriptive but were compliant to four principles:

Democratic accountability, the support of local government electors, the need to avoid risk to the proper function of local government with the area of elected mayor, and that it should not be an automatic requirement that there is an elected mayor.

Shipley questioned the legitimacy of imposed mayors and went on to state that “the Government have to explain why, if an assembly is right for London, it is not right for Greater Manchester and other parts of the country”.

The Bill needed to be amended in order to “make the proposed structures more accountable, with checks and balances”, he said.

Baroness Williams agreed it was important for the Secretary of State to consider whether the democratic accountability was strong enough to support the devolution of powers. But she stressed: “It is important to understand that nothing would ever be imposed on a local area. The area would have to want it to happen.”

She did not expand on how the Secretary of State could be certain that an area favoured a mayor, but argued that Greater Manchester did not have a mayor imposed upon it, rather “it has agreed that a metro mayor will be the accountable person.”

Lord Heseltine (Con) opposed the Shipley amendment stating that the Bill sought to create a local government which worked. The proposed amendment, he said, would “constrain it with the same sorts of problems that have bedevilled the existing structure, which we broadly know has to be replaced.”

Lord Shipley urged the Government to make sure area that adopt the elected mayor model of devolution set up ‘assemblies’ to scrutinise the decisions and actions of those mayors.

Other Liberal Democrat proposals, likely to be rejected by the Government as unwieldly and over-bureaucratic, include forming elected assemblies to hold mayors to account. The assemblies would have the same functions and procedures as the London Assembly in relation to the Greater London Authority and would be made up of five elected members from each constituent council on the combined authority.

Shadow local government minister Lord McKenzie of Luton (Lab) called on the Communities Secretary to lay out a strategy which ensured all areas, including rural and coastal, benefited from the Bill within three months of passing.

He went on to state that “devolution is not one size fits all…we are clear that devolution should not be limited to just come of our greater northern cities…we want to devolve powers to town to towns, smaller cities and counties, too.”

Baroness Williams agreed that “there are merits in the Government being clear about what devolution offer is to all areas and about future devolution agreements between local areas and the Government.”

She went on to give assurances that “no one place will be prioritised over another. Rural, city, coastal – we want to hear from all areas with their proposals.”

Lord Woolmer of Leeds (Lab) suggested outside London, there was no stomach for another tier of elected bodies.

Lord Shipley (Lib Dem) moved an amendment which he said would short-circuit the need for an independent remuneration panel by setting the sum of pay and compensation of the mayor of a combined authority to be no larger than that of the leader of a constituent council with the highest total pay and compensation package.

Lord Heseltine suggested chief executives of bigger authorities earnt £200,000-£250,000 a year, whilst leaders of the council who dealt with every crisis, only received £30,000 and £50,000.

Baroness Williams said she had asked for some comparator salaries for city or conurbation mayors.

“The London mayor earns nearly £144,000 a year, and the Bristol mayor earns nearly £66,000”, she added.

“It would seem that to make provisions for a combined authority to establish its own independent remuneration committee merely to determine the remuneration of the elected mayor would be introducing an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and would take away some of the flexibility that this Bill offers to those areas that seek to establish a combined authority”.

Peers also looked at whether there should be a four year fixed term election, and whether the franchise should be extended to 16 and 17 year olds. All these amendments were withdrawn or not moved.

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