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May on mayors? Forget conference speeches, try the Yorkshire Post

May on mayors? Forget conference speeches, try the Yorkshire Post

🕔05.Oct 2016

If you want to learn anything genuinely newsworthy about unfolding government policy, don’t bother with party conferences – at least, not if the government concerned is headed by Theresa May, writes Chris Game.

To be fair, the occasionally lamented, forever headline-seeking George Osborne was something of an exception.

I popped in on Monday afternoon to one of the Conservative Conference fringe meetings signposted by the Files’ soon-to-be-hugely-lamented Chief Blogger. Jointly sponsored by the Local Government Association (LGA) and Centre for Cities, it was on elected mayors in general and metro mayors in particular.

Earlier in the day we’d had nothing of substance on devolution from Communities and Local Government Secretary, Sajid Javid. In a reportedly 1,674-word conference speech very largely on housing, there were just two sentences about his being “proud to be continuing with our ambitious devolution agenda”.  Clear confirmation of his ministerial priorities.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, had talked of “harnessing the economic power of our cities” through the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, but then went quickly into the May mantra about this government being focused not just on the NP and ME, but about creating “the conditions for success in the north, the south, and everywhere in between”. Physical resemblance apart, it could have been Pollyanna.

So, with the fringe meeting’s principal speaker being Lord Porter of Spalding – Conservative Chairman of the LGA itself and Leader of South Holland DC, one of the ten Lincolnshire councils supposedly committed to becoming a mayoral Greater Lincolnshire Combined Authority next May – I thought, if anyone might offer an insight into current ministerial thinking, it was surely him.

Sadly not. We heard that he personally didn’t like elected mayors, but, like numerous other council leaders, would be prepared to accept and work with one, if that really were the price of any decent devo deal.

We heard how, with a consultation survey of Lincolnshire residents having narrowly rejected, by 49% to 47%, the proposal to become a mayoral Combined Authority, other council leaders were becoming increasingly opposed, and that inter-authority talks across the county had more or less ground to a halt.

As, the LGA Chairman warned, was happening elsewhere – to the extent that his guess was that “as few as three of the 10 existing mayoral deals could be left standing by the time of planned mayoral elections next May.” The three being, of course, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, and the West Midlands. But of the Government’s position, not a hint.

Indeed, if it was up-to-date news I wanted, I’d have done better staying at home and Googling Monday’s Yorkshire Post. There I could have learnt, slightly oddly from David Gauke (who he? Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that’s who) that, to quote the Post’s headline: “It is mayors, or no devolution”.

In the policy vacuum created following the rumour that the May Government might entertain significant devolution without elected mayors, new talks had been re-opened in all parts of Yorkshire and elsewhere about the possibility of renegotiating previously concluded mayoral deals. Though not, I believe, a Yorkshireman by birth, Gauke obviously knows how they like calling spades spades, and he put it to them straight: forget it.

George Osborne himself could not have been plainer: “For areas that don’t want to go down the mayoral route we will look at devolution options, but to get the most powers you need the best accountability and that’s delivered by directly elected mayors.”

Unreasoned, unsubstantiated and dogmatic, certainly, but it did pass the spade test. How bizarre, though, having to rely on a junior minister clarifying another department’s policy in an interview with a provincial newspaper.

But it gets worse. Yesterday morning, the practitioner journal, the Local Government Chronicle, revealed that this policy had apparently been set by the PM herself “about 10 days ago … in a conference call with about 100 Conservative councillors from all tiers of local government across the country”.

One source, who took part in the call – presumably not Lord Porter – told LGC:

The prime minister could not have been any clearer: the government is carrying on with the devolution deals already in place and if any other areas want one you have to have an elected mayor.

If this is any kind of representative insight into this government’s approach to policy making, it’s really quite scary. The concern not to have a ‘running commentary’ on detailed Brexit negotiations I can understand. But this is the very basis of the government’s domestic devolution policy, affecting potentially every English citizen, and which even under Cameron and Osborne was conducted with a ludicrous and democratically damaging degree of secrecy.

But now we have policy making by hush-hush phone calls, ministerial dissembling, and leaks to diligent or favoured journalists. It’s a reprise of, if not worse than, Blair and Alastair Campbell. I can’t think even Vladimir Putin, had his people monitored May’s conference call, would have been terribly exercised over whether Greater Lincolnshire does or doesn’t have an elected mayor. So why couldn’t we be told?

So, was my conference visit a complete waste of time?  No – we heard from the proverbial horse’s mouth (Lord Porter) his, and, I strongly suspect, most council leaders’ views on the elected mayors with whom at least some will be working from next May.

What should a mayor do?  Answer: as little as possible.  What should their role be?  Answer: to defer to elected council leaders.

The peer’s tongue may have been in his cheek (I was sitting at the back), but for me it set out with useful clarity perhaps the biggest single issue surrounding metro mayors, of which we will be hearing much, much more in the months and years to come.

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