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Has May finally decided she can win the mayoral battle?

Has May finally decided she can win the mayoral battle?

🕔28.Nov 2016

If you were in any doubt before last Wednesday about where we’d got to on devolution, you didn’t need to watch or even read the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement; just do the word count says Chris Game

Local Government Chronicle did, and found that, while the D-word totalled 34 mentions by George Osborne in last year’s Statement, Philip 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? Even Sybil Fawlty would concede that suggesting devolution isn’t a personal priority of this Chancellor is a statement of 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 post seeks to suggest that, in a strictly limited sense, it may have become one.

Hammond’s personal case can be seen as an example of Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark in the night – its not barking as a race horse was removed from the stable being a clue to the guilty perpetrator. The unheard dog here, as we’ll see, was the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CA).

The Chancellor’s paltry D-word count was part of a confirmation of his disregard for not only devolution but for local government generally.

CIPFA Chief Executive Rob Whiteman judged his passing devo references to be the most welcome bits of the speech from local government’s perspective, which says everything you need to know about the rest, including, instead of even a hint of any action on social care funding, the awful jargon that councils just “have to manage the envelope of resource they are given.”  So, two fingers to the lot of you.

English devolution got a 10-line paragraph in Hammond’s 60-page speech, confirming that “the government remains committed to devolving powers to support local areas to address productivity barriers”.

Just three city regions received specific mentions. London gets a £3.15 billion share of the national affordable housing settlement and a devolved adult education budget, presumably to catch up with the skills powers that are already part of other devolution deals.

Also a Work and Health Programme budget, along with Greater Manchester – under the now established constitutional convention that any seasonal Treasury Statement must include some financial bauble for Manchester, even though its voters will almost certainly elect a Labour metro mayor next May.

But talking of party politics, the third regional name-check was, yes, the West Midlands, with Hammond reprising his party conference commitment to a second WM devo deal, to include new powers on transport, criminal justice, data, planning and skills.

Which, as Kevin Johnson noted and quoted, was seized on immediately by Conservative mayoral candidate Andy Street – at greater length than the Chancellor’s whole devolution paragraph. Street liked it, a lot, in case you were wondering, as well as much else that was and wasn’t in the Chancellor’s Statement.

Now it’s obviously possible to read too much into a single sentence in an hour-long speech, but, if that’s all you have to work with, you’ve got to make an effort.

So my first reaction was relief. Yes, we’d been promised a second devo deal pretty well ever since the first one – relatively modest given the WMCA’s size – was announced just over a year ago.  But, considering Theresa May’s summer of wavering indecision over the whole devolution issue, it was good to have it confirmed.

My second reaction was to reflect on what this pretty low key confirmation said about Chancellor Hammond – not just in contrast to Osborne, who’d have made far more of a song and dance about it, but also, and more interestingly, in contrast to the PM.

When May came into office, she clearly 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 over the summer she must have realised that her very dithering, and the uncertainty it created, would do part of the job for her. Some councils lost their nerve, others started bickering amongst themselves, and previously 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 perhaps 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 torn between a Labour-dominated Leeds City Region Combined Authority (CA) and a ‘One Yorkshire’ bid covering predominantly Conservative North and East Yorkshire as well – favoured reportedly by Northern Powerhouse Minister, Andrew Percy, but completely at variance with Osborne’s conception of city regions as the key economic growth drivers.

Sheffield City Region leaders aren’t great mayoral enthusiasts either, but their bigger hurdle has been 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. No major parties have selected mayoral candidates and time is running out.

The North East was next actually to go, 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. Whereas Osborne might have tried to salvage the deal, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid simply withdrew the legislation.

Next out was Greater Lincolnshire – effectively several weeks ago when the negotiated deal, having been agreed by most districts, was rejected by the county council following a county-wide consultation.

And then there’s the East Anglia saga. The original deal covering all three counties – Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire – was rejected by Cambridgeshire County and Peterborough City Councils (as well as by several Norfolk districts) and replaced with a 2CA deal: N/S and C/P, 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 – and here’s the thing – on the evening of 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 scheduled for next May.

I can’t, of course, prove it, but I’d bet at least my winter fuel allowance that, had that happened a year ago, George Osborne would have had the 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 councils involved 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, even given the political possibilities, he’s just ain’t that bovvered.

My reading, though, is that his Downing Street next door neighbour, the PM, is nowadays very interested indeed in these matters and what might happen next May, which, assuming no intervening General Election, will be her first big electoral test.

If she’d given it any thought at all when she came into office in early July, my guess is that Theresa May would have reckoned that the Conservatives could, with luck, win three of Clark’s nine mayoralties: Greater Lincs, 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, came to look, by the time of October’s party conference, definitely winnable.

On those assumptions, if you do the math, you could now see three Labour (Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley) but also three Conservative mayors, one of the latter providing the biggest headlines of all – and suddenly all that rather dull devolution stuff must strike No.10 as a whole lot more interesting.

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