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Northern Mayorhouse takes shape as Midlands lags behind in devolution race

Northern Mayorhouse takes shape as Midlands lags behind in devolution race

🕔27.Jul 2015

A powerful network of seven elected metro mayors could soon dominate the north of England as the Government’s devolution drive gathers pace, reports Paul Dale in the first of a double devolution feature on today’s Files

Tees Valley is the latest region to announce that it is negotiating with Chancellor George Osborne over setting up a combined authority overseen by a mayor – a necessity in order to obtain the full suite of evolved powers on offer from Whitehall.

Other cities and regions talking to the Treasury about elected mayors include Sheffield city region, Leeds, West Yorkshire and its partner authorities, the Liverpool city region as well as the North East combined authority.

Greater Manchester combined authority has already agreed to move to the mayoral model, with police commissioner Tony Lloyd in place as the acting mayor ahead of an election in 2017.

The Greater Manchester deal is generally accepted as the pinnacle of devolution with the mayor being given powers to run transport, buses, planning, housing, a £6 billion health and social care budget, and the right to appoint a police commissioner.

It is expected that the northern mayors, seven proposed at the moment but potentially more to come, will form their own influential ‘cabinet’ to deal with cross-border matters, forming an unofficial regional government for the north of England.

The pace of change across the Chancellor’s so-called Northern Powerhouse is in stark contrast to the west and east Midlands where talks to form combined authorities are at an early stage and most of the council leaders continue to set their faces against having a metro mayor.

The seven West Midlands metropolitan councils recently published a combined authority prospectus for the Treasury to consider and hope to have a new authority up and running by April 2016. But the council leaders have been reluctant to talk about having a mayor and are attempting to negotiate a devolution deal with the Chancellor without taking the mayoral route.

However, the chances of the West Midlands achieving devolution in the scale of that awarded to Greater Manchester would appear to be remote. Mr Osborne, Communities Secretary Greg Clark and Local Government Minister Marcus Jones have repeatedly stated that full devolution can only go to combined authorities with elected mayors.

Birmingham city council’s own problems as it struggles to deliver governance reforms demanded in the Kerslake Review could have implications for the emerging West Midlands combined authority.

The independent improvement panel set up to oversee a culture change in Birmingham warned recently that the city council needed “right now” to demonstrate consistent political leadership for all aspects of the improvement programme in order to give the combined authority the best possible chance of working.

The east Midlands appears to be moving at an even slower pace than the west Midlands, although there are plans to form a combined authority consisting of Derbyshire County Council, Derby City Council, Amber Valley Borough Council, Bolsover District Council, Chesterfield Borough Council, Derbyshire Dales District Council, Erewash Borough Council, High Peak Borough Council, North East Derbyshire District Council and South Derbyshire District Council.

Meanwhile, on the doorstep of the Midlands, the counties of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire have announced plans to set up a combined authority, although again the prospect of a mayor does not seem to be on the agenda.

The Chancellor used last week’s spending review to set out plans to build on the devolution of powers to Greater Manchester by encouraging other local leaders to come forward to agree similar plans to take power away from Whitehall.

Commenting on the Tees Valley combined authority plan, Mr Osborne said:

This is another important step in building the Northern Powerhouse. The momentum towards devolution is unstoppable and the north is leading the way. What we are offering is radical. We are handing power to the people who know their area best with an accountable elected mayor working for the whole area. We will now work constructively with all parties across Tees Valley to land a deal which works for everyone.

The Chancellor and the newly appointed Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, Jim O’Neill, will help to drive the deal’s agenda, working with Communities and Local Government Secretary Greg Clark and Minister for the Northern Powerhouse James Wharton. Formal discussions will soon begin.

In the Spending Review the Chancellor asked all Secretaries of State to consider what powers their departments can devolve to local areas and there this could allow integration between public services.

City regions that want to agree a devolution deal have been asked to agree geography and submit formal, fiscally-neutral proposals to the Treasury by September 4.

The Treasury is considering ways to transform its approach to local government financing and further decentralising power in order to boost both efficiency and local economic growth.

Later, Chris Game from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham takes a special look at the lessons from Leeds.

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