Local government’s movers and shakers for 2017
It’s the end of the year, so obviously that requires a list or two. Here’s Chris Game from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham with a run down of the top players in the local authority world which sees Andy Street ahead of Siôn Simon, but no place for Cllr John Clancy.
A little overcome with, or possibly by, Christmas spirit, I rashly offered the Files’ editor an end-of-year blog. Even more rashly, I offered him a choice: serious or seasonal, important or inconsequential – the serious and important being the Public Accounts Committee’s latest, and again critical, report on the Government’s policy on devolution in England.
The report is directly relevant to us – generally as citizens whose Government seems to find it enormously difficult to formulate, or at least communicate, its policy on anything major at all; and more specifically as West Midlands voters who next May will be electing a metro mayor to head the governance of our new, but minimally understood, Combined Authority.
There’s a lot about ministers’ failure to define their objectives for devolution and its supposed link to economic growth, about funding at a time when constituent authorities’ budgets are already under such austerity strain, and about the apparent lack of serious concern with scrutiny, transparency, and accountability – all topics raised in the committee’s October ‘away day’ meeting in Wolverhampton.
So much, indeed, and so important that I unilaterally decided it warranted a more detailed and considered treatment in the New Year. Which left my seasonal, inconsequential option – a choice reinforced by a visit to the Botanical Gardens’ spectacularly colourful Magical Lantern Festival (running, by the way, through to Jan 2nd).
The festive season demands colour, I decided, so here is my own modest but free polychrome tribute in the form of a tabular summary of another seasonal event: the Local Government Chronicle magazine’s annual LGC 100 Power List.
The rules are pretty standard, with just a couple of tweaks: nominations from LGC readers of those likely to exert the most influence across the local government sector in the next 12 months – national politicians, elected members, civil servants, officers, thinkers, whatever, but excluding the PM, Chancellor, Opposition Leader, and the nine eminent judges themselves. Main judging criteria: strength of nominees’ leadership, breadth and depth of their influence, etc.
My own selection, representing roughly one-third of the complete list, is of course entirely personal, prejudiced, and idiosyncratic, but achieves what I think fashionistas might call a rather striking harmony of non-complementary colours.
As for content, the following points from the full list struck me as more or less interesting and therefore guided my own selection – and are listed in no particular order.
1. In most, less centrally dominated, states – where the Prime Minister’s ‘Chief of Staff’ isn’t ranked by an expert panel as being likely to have more influence over local government’s immediate future than every leader of every major local authority in the country – my first point would hardly be worth noting. But, at least if metro mayoral candidates are counted as the local politicians they either are or (like Andy Burnham and Siôn Simon) aspire to be, local politicians (25) and officials (26 – mainly council Chief Execs) are in a small but absolute majority.
The majority is small, for there are 10 ministers, 14 senior civil servants, 4 ‘special advisers’ (including, ranked 7 and 79, two of the PM’s obviously very special ones, at £140,000 a throw), 5 MPs and Peers, and so on. And, of course, even with the PM herself and the Chancellor excluded, three ministers head the list, which is possibly fair judging, but also rather sad.
2. It raises most obviously the prospects for devolution, which involves several of these ministers being prepared to cede some of their sometimes only recently acquired responsibilities to Combined Authorities and elected mayors – which their predecessors, and particularly their civil servants, have been generally reluctant to.
It may be, though, that the LGC judges sense the Osborne-initiated rush to devolution to be at least slowing down. Two years ago, Greater Manchester was setting the pace, the Northern Powerhouse was being assembled, and sharing top spot in the Power List were the City Council’s Leader, Richard Leese, and Chief Executive, Howard Bernstein, now 34th and 54th respectively.
Two other northern leaders – Oldham’s now MP, Jim McMahon (6), and Wigan’s Lord Smith (24) – were also well-placed then, and Sajid Javid’s predecessor, the formidable Eric Pickles, was in a modest 15th.
3. This year there are just two local politicians in the top 10. London mayor, Sadiq Khan – recently ranked by an Asian marketing group the most influential Asian in Britain (Javid was No.2), and arguably Jeremy Corbyn’s most dangerous rival – just makes it, while Lord Porter of Spalding, though also the Leader of South Holland (Lincolnshire) District Council, owes certainly his high ranking to his national LGA role.
Perhaps more remarkably, this year’s list features just one additional mayor, Sir Steve Bullock (43), which prompts several thoughts.
First, it’s quite a come-down from 2014’s total of six: Jules Pipe – Hackney (9), Boris Johnson (57), Sir Steve Bullock (60), Joe Anderson – Liverpool (63), George Ferguson – Bristol (84), and Dorothy Thornhill – Watford (92) – with the non-mayoral Sir Albert Bore, incidentally, at 50th.
Second, it contrasts sharply with the 18 ranked council leaders, suggesting that, despite our being about to see the biggest single increase in mayoral numbers for nearly 20 years, these judges at least don’t appear to see the office, or anyway the current incumbents, as any more influential than that of leader, and possibly the reverse.
On the face of it, this could seem at variance with the insistence that successive sets of senior ministers have placed on elected mayors being the only acceptable passport to significant devolution. And yet, third, these same judges list as many as five metro mayoral candidates, including both the Conservative, Andy Street (39) and Labour’s Siôn Simon (99) in the West Midlands.
Perhaps, as in satirist Peter Cook’s day, it’s still the Latin that’s the main qualification required for judging, not rational consistency.
4. I’ve so far referred directly or indirectly to 13 of the 100 Power List members, every one of them male. The overall picture isn’t quite as dire as this suggests, but, in the same way as the proportion of women councillors has always, and for long massively, exceeded the proportion of women MPs, one always expects rather more from local government.
In fact, there was just one woman in the Power List top ten, and 28 overall – that latter proportion being reflected in my own selection. Moreover, just five of the 28 were council leaders – outnumbered not only by the dozen women chief execs, but even the six civil servants.
Early metro mayoral candidate selections, as noted in these columns, weren’t exactly encouraging either, though women’s prospects have improved somewhat, with the selection of Beverley Nielsen as the Lib Dems’ candidate here in the West Midlands, and three women in the running to be Labour’s candidate in Tees Valley, including the Leader of Redcar & Cleveland Council, Sue Jeffrey.
5. I hadn’t anticipated mentioning Ms Nielsen, which is one explanation for the single white row in my varicoloured table.
The LGC’s own commentary on its Power List noted how “the West Midlands has made huge strides in catching up with its northern rival [Manchester] for the second city accolade”.
The hugeness wasn’t immediately apparent from the List itself – with Council Leader John Clancy still to make his imprint on the national world of local government, and the actual placings of both Mark Rogers and Izzy Seccombe probably owing at least something to their respective roles with SOLACE and the LGA. Adding in the North Norfolk Lib Dem MP, Norman Lamb, thus helped the regional, as well as the party’s, cause.
We’ll be hearing much more about the WMCA in the coming months, and very much more about one of its most commendable initiatives to date – namely, its three Commissions, looking into Productivity, Land, and Mental Health.
That the latter is chaired by Lamb, who served as Minister for Care & Support throughout most of the Coalition Government and – not easy for a Lib Dem – earned the near-universal respect of MPs across the House, will give its findings and recommendations additional weight. 63rd place isn’t the stuff of which headlines are made, but in this case it’s an example of what makes these otherwise inconsequential exercises worthwhile.
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