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Metro mayors: Yes, ministers screwed up before, but this time at least feels different

Metro mayors: Yes, ministers screwed up before, but this time at least feels different

🕔05.Jun 2015

Were I not previously acquainted with Paul Dale’s erudition, I’d have put money on his recent devolution piece being the product of some bizarre bet: how to get amethysts and bosoms into the opening three paragraphs of a blog on metro mayors.

In the run-up to next Monday’s Lords debate on the Second Reading of the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill, this blog covers broadly similar ground to Paul’s – but from a less cultural starting point.

My reading immediately prior to last week’s Queen’s Speech comprised not the deathless verse of Oscar Wilde, but the very transient prose of More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First, the manifesto-style book written by Steve Hilton, and extensively plugged, reviewed, commended and pompously rubbished over recent weeks.

Hilton is best known here as, from 2010 to 2012, David Cameron’s ‘blue-sky thinker’ and strategy adviser. His book is not about local government per se, but, as its title intimates, it contains much of interest, once you sift the perspicacities from the platitudes, to anyone sensing that our own local government scale and structures too often hinder rather than assist our instincts to behave more humanly/humanely.

As it happens, I enjoyed it, but its mention is mainly to enable me to quibble with its author. Specifically, I question Hilton’s accusation, in an interview with The Sunday Times’ Camilla Cavendish (May 17), that the Coalition’s failure in 2012 to introduce elected mayors to most of England’s biggest cities was due to the policy’s ‘sabotage’ by the Lib Dems in general and Nick Clegg in particular – rather than to, say, general ministerial neglect and incompetence.

Nowadays it’s Conservative policy to blame the Lib Dems for everything – including not winning enough seats to prevent the Government having to implement the nastier parts of its manifesto. But to hold their ex-leader responsible for voters in Birmingham and eight other cities rejecting elected mayors amounts to rewriting history – highly relevant history too, for, as we know, metro mayors are back with proverbial knobs on.

Chancellor George Osborne, most recently on Monday’s regional visit, has been commendably transparent and consistent. If a combined metropolitan authority, like the West Midlands, aspires to a “full suite of devolved powers” – city-wide responsibilities for transport, policing, economic development, health and social care, plus worthwhile fiscal discretion – the accountability price includes an elected metro-wide mayor who “takes the decisions and carries the can”.

Indeed, that can carrying phrase, launched in Manchester on May 14th, recycled at the CBI’s annual dinner on the 20th and at who knows how many private meetings, threatens to become, like ‘hard-working families’ and ‘long-term economic plan’, another Tory mantra to be shoehorned into every possible conversation.

Exactly which decisions will be in the mayor’s can and which in the combined authority can is still unspecified, though we may learn more in Monday’s debate.

It is clear, though, and worth emphasising, that the very fact of devolved functions being divided between mayor and authority means that, to quote the House of Commons Library blog,this is emphatically not the ‘London model’ of a strong elected mayor controlling city-wide public services” that enthusiasts would favour and detractors fear; or a job description for the type of ‘heroic leader’ Birmingham CEO Mark Rogers distrusts.

But mayors there will be, without any further referendums, because, ministers insist, it was all covered in a sentence on page 13 (lucky for some) of the Conservative manifesto: “We will devolve far-reaching powers … to large cities which choose to have elected mayors”.

Certainly for new combined authorities, there will be no imposition of mayors, which antagonised so many last time. Ministers’ challenge to existing city council leaders amounts to a simple pair of equations: 1EM = FRP; 0EM ≠ FRP. The choice is theirs.

This time, therefore, things really are different. There’s a very senior minister – in fact, with Communities Secretary Greg Clark, two senior ministers – genuinely committed to devolution; the devolvable powers are more explicit, more realisable, and more substantial; and we’re talking not cities but city regions.

The fact remains, though, that this case would be far easier to make, certainly to the public, had not nearly a million city voters participated just three years ago in referendums that decisively rejected mayoral models of government.

So back to Steve Hilton, who, as strategy adviser, foresaw the difficulty. If there’s an iron law of referendum drafting, it’s to have your preference as the status quo – staying in the EU, retaining an up-and-running mayoral system – and as the positive Yes option.

“That’s why Michael Heseltine and I felt it important that people experience the difference a strong mayor could make before they were invited to take a view” (my emphasis). Fine – but now Hilton’s memory begins to fade.

“Both the 2010 Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement”, he claims, “pledged to introduce a mayor to the biggest cities and to let people vote later in a ‘confirmatory referendum (my emphasis).  The Lib Dems reneged on that deal. When a question was asked in parliament, Clegg made clear there would be no mayors without referendums”.

Here, Hilton is WRONG, in almost every particular. There was no deal or publicly shared understanding, because the key phrase in both manifesto (p.76) and Coalition Agreement (p.12) was, presumably deliberately, left ambiguous: “We will create directly elected mayors … subject to confirmatory referendums …” (my emphasis). Mayors first, or referendums – Hilton, and everyone else, could claim whichever they preferred.

Prior to the Localism Bill’s publication in December 2010, different (Conservative) ministers gave completely conflicting statements. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles reassured MPs: “Of course we will not [impose mayors]. That is completely out of the question” (col. 1117) – following which his Bill proposed doing precisely that.

As minister, Pickles would have powers under Section 9N of the Bill to order a council to create a ‘shadow mayor’ in 2011, and to operate a mayor/cabinet form of governance until it be confirmed or rejected in a 2012 referendum – in short, the Hilton/Heseltine formula.

The Lib Dems have never, as a party, liked mayors, but opposition to their apparent imposition on unconsulted local authorities was near-universal – through most of the local government world, all major parties in the Lords, and particularly the city councils directly affected.

Birmingham was in the particularly tricky position of leader Mike Whitby being the only Conservative prospective shadow mayor, with the council opposed in principle to the whole policy.

Shadow mayors were finally dropped from the Bill on the very first day’s debate of its Lords committee stage in June 2011, the announcement made not by Clegg, but Conservative local government minister Lady Hanham (col. 1062).

The following May, eight of the nine ‘big city’ referendums rejected elected mayors by majorities ranging from Manchester’s 53 per cent, through Birmingham’s 58 per cent, to Sheffield’s 65 per cent. The exception was Bristol, swiftly rewarded by being invited with London to jointly host this October’s inaugural Global Parliament of Mayors.

Despite there being over 30,000 directly elected municipal mayors in EU countries alone, the global dimension in the 2012 referendum ‘debate’ barely stretched beyond The Simpsons’ Diamond Joe Quimby and New York’s 9/11 hero Rudy Giuliani.

Generally, the Yes campaigns were half-baked and the No campaigns puerile – Birmingham’s intellectually challenging contribution being ‘Vote No to a Power Freak’.  Serious information and ministerial leadership were as minimal as they were six months later in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

Yet most, if not all, of these referendums were almost certainly winnable. Early campaign opinion polls showed clear majorities of respondents in favour of their city having a directly elected mayor – 53 to 37 per cent in Birmingham, 54 to 23 per cent across the five South and West Yorkshire cities.

That the referendums were lost, and that public opinion today is far more negative than it was then, is attributable not to Clegg and the Lib Dems, but to Conservative ministerial indifference and leadership failure.

One thing the Government both could and should have done, and advocated at the time in these columns, was to introduce a power of recall, to deal with the frequently raised concern of voters being unable – unlike in some other mayoral systems – to remove an elected mayor in whom a large proportion subsequently loses confidence.

It should have been done, because in the Localism Bill’s 2011 impact assessment (p.9) ministers said they would: if mayors were going to exercise additional powers, the accountability regime should include a recall mechanism.

Like Osborne’s famous balanced books, the “later date” at which it was supposed to happen never arrived. So, if we’re to accept his dogmatic insistence that elected mayors and only elected mayors will meet his accountability requirements, now would be a good time to resuscitate recall and hurry it along.

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