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It’s not the economy, stupid, metro mayors will be George Osborne’s legacy

It’s not the economy, stupid, metro mayors will be George Osborne’s legacy

🕔25.Nov 2015

History will have the final say on whether George Osborne goes down as a great Chancellor, but one thing is certain – he is changing the local government landscape in a way many thought was impossible to achieve, writes Paul Dale.

Three years ago, several English cities including Birmingham decisively rejected the notion that they should be run London-style by a directly elected mayor. The opposition expressed in town halls and through public referendums was so overwhelming that most people thought the mayoral system was dead and buried for the foreseeable future.

Not so. Mr Osborne, with his devolution packages for English cities and city regions, is succeeding in shunting mayors in through the back door. Not city mayors this time but metro mayors at the head of groupings of councils known as combined authorities.

Mr Osborne made it clear from the start that to qualify for maximum devolution, to get control of budgets and powers to run transport, economic development and skills, the councils would have to bite the bullet and agree to have a metro mayor.

And after much huffing and puffing, the likes of West Midlands, Greater Manchester, the North-east, Tees Valley, Sheffield and Liverpool agreed to the Chancellor’s demands and will stage their first mayoral elections in 2017.

The Treasury received 38 proposed devolution deals by the deadline of September 4. Most won’t make it to today’s Autumn Statement, but it seems highly likely that over the course of the next year or so more and more city regions will succumb to the lure of Mr Osborne’s mayoral offer.

By 2020 it will be difficult to travel the length and breadth of England without passing through mayoral territory. This, for good or ill, will be Mr Osborne’s legacy.

To be fair, the metro mayors can at present hardly be described as all-powerful. They will be able to raise a two per cent levy on business rates, but only with the agreement of business-led local enterprise partnerships, and they will have overall control of multi-billion pound economic development investment packages, as well as overseeing bus and local rail services.

As the West Midlands devolution agreement demonstrates, canny Mr Osborne has imposed quite a few checks and balances to address claims that mayors are “elected dictators”.

Major decisions including those over planning and housing taken by the mayor will require support of the cabinet, consisting of the seven West Midlands council leaders. Decisions of lesser importance will require a two-thirds majority. Shadow WMCA chair Cllr Bob Sleigh has said in practice he expects the cabinet and mayor to reach consensus rather than taking formal votes.

The message from both Chancellor and council leaders is that this is just the beginning and the metro mayor system will slowly evolve over the next few years.

Or as Lord Kerslake the former permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government put it, the city region deals are not final but merely starting points for “further dynamic devolution”.

Kerslake, whose highly critical review of Birmingham city council’s governance capabilities still reverberates, told the DCLG select committee a key issue would be whether any powers were to be given to the public to “re-visit the question of a local mayor”. In other words, once done can a metro mayor agreement ever be undone?

One thing that could throw Mr Osborne’s mayoral experiment off course is the lack of enthusiasm hitherto shown by the English for turning out and voting. If you argue, as the Chancellor does, that mayors are more accountable because they are directly elected by the people, then you risk being embarrassed if the people turn out to be apathetic about the whole thing.

Councillor Sue Jeffrey, chair of the shadow Tees Valley Combined Authority, told the select committee voter turnout in 2017 was essential to the success of the idea and the mayor had to be part of the collective working for the good of the area.

Cllr Jeffrey is surely correct, and the Government will be desperate to avoid a repeat of record low turnouts for that other recent experiment with directly elected officials – the police and crime commissioners of England and Wales.

The average turnout at PCC elections in 2012 was 15 per cent. In the West Midlands, only 12 per cent of registered electors bothered to vote. The 2014 by-election for a new West Midlands PCC to replace Bob Jones, who died in office, attracted a 10.4 per cent turnout.

The 11 referendums held in the largest English cities in 2012 to decide whether to adopt a mayoral system similarly failed to excite the public. Turnout in Birmingham was just under 28 per cent, pretty much in line with the other cities.

In London, the 2008 mayoral election attracted a reasonable 45.3 per cent turnout. But four years later, in 2012, turnout was down to 38.1 per cent.

Liverpool held a mayoral election in 2012 with a 37 per cent turnout. Bristol managed 28 per cent for its mayoral election the following year.

On this basis the English seem to regard electing a mayor as about as important as electing a member of the European Parliament. That is to say, not very important at all.

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