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Osborne’s red line for council leaders: ‘You’ve got to have a metro mayor to get devolution’

Osborne’s red line for council leaders: ‘You’ve got to have a metro mayor to get devolution’

🕔14.May 2015

There was more than a little irony in a room full of mostly Labour politicians sitting in Westminster demanding that the Government deliver a radical programme of devolution for English cities when 200 miles away in Manchester a Tory chancellor was planning to do just that, writes Paul Dale.

As the Core Cities group was unveiling its Devolution Declaration, George Osborne was preparing to speak in Manchester where he would reveal plans to give cities and city regions powers over housing, transport, planning and policing.

Hailing Greater Manchester and the Northern Powerhouse as a blueprint for the future, Mr Osborne promised a cities devolution bill in the Queen’s Speech and said his door was open to any other major city “who wants to take this bold step into the future”.

There was, of course, a catch. Mr Osborne’s door remains firmly closed to city regions that refuse to countenance having a directly elected mayor.

Addressing the mayoral issue head on, Mr Osborne declared: “I will not impose the model on anyone, but nor will I settle for less”.

The elected metro mayor of the 10 Greater Manchester councils will have control of more than £7 billion of public money including health budgets in a step more radical than anything before in a country as centralised as Britain.

The chances of anything like that happening any time soon in the Midlands depend on two factors.

First, the city regions must convince the Chancellor that their governance arrangements and partnership working are mature enough to be trusted with devolved budgets and powers.

Second, like Greater Manchester they must agree to have an elected mayor.

The first of these demands would appear to be some way from being fulfilled. The West Midlands or Greater Birmingham councils have not yet reached agreement on forming a combined authority, and when they do so will still have to demonstrate that Labour and Tory councils can work constructively side by side.

The second demand is so far away as to be almost unimaginable. The chances at the moment of Birmingham, the Black Country and Solihull councils agreeing to move to an elected mayor model are remote, but perhaps that will change given the bluntness of Mr Osborne’s ultimatum.

As things stand, the Black Country councils have said they will not countenance a metro mayor. Birmingham council has not issued official guidance, but the city has already voted twice against having a mayor and huge resistance to the idea remains in place across political parties.

Birmingham Chamber of Commerce responded to Mr Osborne’s announcement today by urging West Midlands councils to “think carefully about the added value of having a mayor”. This represents a significant change of tack for the Chamber, which in the past has been at best lukewarm over mayors.

Mr Osborne is making it clear that any decision to have a metro mayor is entirely down to local communities. The Government won’t be forcing anyone’s hand.

He told the BBC:

These decisions – about Hull, and about Manchester, and about Leeds, and about Newcastle, and about Birmingham – should be made by the people of those great cities, who know and love their area, rather than having to troop up to London and plead for crumbs from the table.

That is absolutely the right approach and that’s exactly what we’re doing. So rather than it being a new layer of government, what it’s doing is taking from central government and putting it in the hands of local people.

While the Core Cities leaders were debating devolution at their declaration summit, Mr Osborne was getting ready to declare that the “old model” of running everything from London is “broken” and has unbalanced the economy. People feel remote from the decisions that affect their lives and this “is not good for our prosperity or our democracy.”

Back at Westminster, Core Cities delegates were busily putting forward evidence to support devolution. Decentralising powers from Whitehall to the regions will rebalance the economy and generate 1.16 million jobs and £222 billion of growth by 2030, it is claimed.

The Declaration for Devolution boldly states:

This is not a pipe dream. Devolution is happening now, in communities large and small across our great nation. Our cities and the surrounding areas are starting to flex their muscles and gain new freedoms, but we have barely begun to tap into their potential.

The mood of the meeting, however, was far from happy about the idea of elected mayors.

Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool, made a spirited effort to get colleagues on side by claiming that the Government was not holding local authorities to ransom at all. It was a matter for councils to decide whether to embrace the mayoral model. If they did, all well and good. If they didn’t that was their right.

Nottingham and surrounding councils have decided to have nothing to do with the mayoral model. South Yorkshire, previously opposed to a mayor, is apparently thinking again following Mr Osborne’s statement.

Local government academic Professor Tony Travers drew a few groans from the room when he said the prospect of meaningful devolution would have been far less had Labour won the General Election. Few people would today have been thinking in terms of “radical devolution”, he added.

Prof Travers made the point that with the Government’s austerity attack on public spending set to continue, combined authorities under metro mayors would allow council and health budgets to be shared, cutting out duplication. Less money would go further, he claimed.

Nick Forbes, the Labour leader of Newcastle Council, had nothing but praise for Greg Clark, the new Communities Secretary. Mr Clark was a “principled supporter of devolution” and Labour councils could work with him.

Cllr Forbes added:

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made encouraging noises about devolution and today’s announcement takes Greater Manchester even further forward.

Devolution is here to stay. It is one of the new fault lines in British politics and transcends parties.

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