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Government too ‘vague’ over mayor powers, warns Warwick Commission chairman

Government too ‘vague’ over mayor powers, warns Warwick Commission chairman

🕔23.Feb 2012
English: Greg Clark, British politician and Sh...

The head of an independent inquiry into the role that elected mayors could play in cities like Birmingham is the latest prominent figure to urge the Government to be clearer about the executive powers being offered.

Professor Wyn Grant said voters taking part in a referendum on May 3 to decide whether Birmingham, Coventry and other major English cities should be run by mayors wouldn’t know what they were being asked to sign up for if Ministers failed to spell out how the new system will make a difference.

Prof Grant, who chairs the Warwick Commission research project into the strategic leadership role of elected mayors, said the case for changing from the present council leader and cabinet system would remain weak if people were kept in the dark about the precise nature of the role.

He told the Coventry Telegraph: “It makes it difficult for voters to decide what they’re voting for.

“They won’t know what the mayor is going to do, or if it goes beyond being a figurehead with relatively limited powers.

“Governments are reluctant to give local authorities any more powers. Government wants to control how much money is spent.”

Prof Grant’s comments broadly reflect criticism in many of the English cities selected for mayoral referendums, where politicians in favour of elected mayors have pleaded with the Government to spell out the powers on offer in order to maximise the ‘yes’ vote.

Cities Minister Greg Clark has consistently refused to go any further than dropping broad hints about a range of powers to be passed to Birmingham from Whitehall, including development, transport, skills and apprenticeships, Homes and Communities Agency assets and capital spending budgets.

The three Labour politicians fighting to be selected as their party’s mayoral candidate in Birmingham, have urged the Government to transfer wide-ranging powers over economic development and to allow the city’s mayor direct access to Whitehall budgets.

Birmingham Chamber of Commerce is backing similar demands for mayors to have transparent and meaningful executive powers.

Mr Clark told a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting in Birmingham that additional powers could be negotiated between the Government and a mayor, but only when the mayor was in place. Birmingham, because of its size, could be a special case warranting additional powers, he suggested.

However, critics of change point out that Mr Clark has also said cities do not have to elect mayors for councils to be freed from Whitehall control. The Government has said it will also consider handing additional powers to cities voting to retain the council leader and cabinet system.

Mr Clark stuck to his guns at a House of Commons reception organised by Birmingham City Council, where he told guests that the fine detail of new powers would depend on discussions between elected mayors and the Government.

The University of Warwick’s Warwick Commission will report its findings next month.  It was set up to consider the key question: “What is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to cities?”

The commission’s purpose is not to judge whether directly elected mayors are the right system of democratic governance as this will be a matter for electors. Rather, the Commission will consider the optimal scale and structure for the offices of elected mayor if one or more city votes to adopt the system.

Prof Grant said suggestions contained in a Government Unlocking Growth in Cities Document, setting out limited powers, were “vague” and it was unclear whether there would be “anything significant extra from having a mayor”.

He also hinted that the commission’s research into existing mayors in England and abroad is yet to produce any evidence that they have delivered jobs and growth over and above economic expansion that would have taken place in any case.

Referendums asking voters whether they wish to be governed by a mayor will take place in Birmingham, Coventry,  Bradford, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle Upon -Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield on May 3. Cities voting in favour will stage mayoral elections on November 15, alongside separate elections for Police and Crime Commissioners.

Two of the original 12 cities selected by the Government for referendums have moved a stage further. Leicester elected a mayor in May 2011, while Liverpool will do so in May 2012.

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