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Who’s got the power in – and over – our local government?

Who’s got the power in – and over – our local government?

🕔22.Jan 2018

My recent blog, writes Chris Game – mainly about alternative ways of measuring the public’s recognition of prominent politicians in general and West Midlands mayor Andy Street in particular – concluded with a brief reference to the Local Government Chronicle’s LGC 100 ‘Power List’, in which, in an obviously different kind of recognition, the aforementioned Street was ranked an impressive 6th.

The Power List is probably the most earnestly conducted and widely consulted exercise of its kind in English local government, and, while not to be taken over-seriously, it warrants at least a more extended look.

The following table, therefore, summarises the 2017/18 Power List in a similar way to my last year’s attempt – that is, polychromatically, idiosyncratically, but hopefully informatively.

The rules are straightforward, with just a couple of tweaks: nominations from LGC readers, as many as you like, of those likely to exert the most influence across the local government sector in the next 12 months – national politicians, elected mayors and councillors, civil servants, officers, thinkers, whatever, but excluding the PM, Chancellor, Opposition Leader, and the seven eminent judges themselves, with their combined “164 years of local government knowledge”.  Main judging criteria: strength of nominees’ leadership, breadth and depth of their influence, etc.

My own first scan of the list was indeed for particularly the new Combined Authority elected mayors, several of whom had featured as candidates in last year’s list, and whose presence and positioning might, I felt, say at least something about not just their personal impact but about the envisaged future of the Government’s apparently stalled devolution agenda.

And the top 20 is moderately encouraging – certainly for the West Midlands and Greater Manchester.

The former has both Street and Chief Exec Deborah Cadman in the top ten, having coincidentally been 39th and 38th last year in their previous roles, plus new entry Dr Henry Kippin in at No.70.  Greater Manchester, as ever the devo pace-setter with its £6 billion integrated health and social care budget, has three – two senior officers and Mayor Andy Burnham – in the top 20.

Which is where this year you’ll also find London Mayor Sadiq Khan – but not Jeff Jacobs, not in the top 20 or anywhere else. It quite intrigues me that Jacobs never seems to feature in these lists. He’s been a or the top officer at the Greater London Authority, serving three mayors now, for the past decade – well remunerated, but for whom the phrase “behind the scenes” might have been invented.

Back to devolution, though, and it’s hard not to conclude that the judges’ recognition of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands is as much a product of their and their mayors’ roles in recent national news events, good and bad, as a signal of any real confidence that this Government has serious enthusiasm for promoting either Combined Authorities specifically or devolution in general.

Otherwise, why would we have to go the last half-dozen of the 100 to find the three other CA mayors elected last May – a clustering that at least prompted the thought of whether there might not have been a bit of judicial sympathy and discretion here?

For in the real world the Government’s own New Year contribution was the delayed publication of its required Annual Report on Devolution, recording that “between April 2016 and March 2017, the Government reached no devolution agreements with new areas.  In relation to areas where agreements were previously reached, no further agreements were concluded.”  It was good to know we’d not missed anything.

In something of the same vein, the business end of this ‘Local Government Power List’ was headed by someone not from local government at all. Not in itself unusual in as centralised a polity as ours, for ministers feature prominently and properly in most years, and last time took the top three places – Javid, Clark and Barwell.

But Simon Stevens isn’t from local government at all and evidently owes his elevation – like the more dramatic rise of his now Health AND Social Care minister, Jeremy Hunt – to the increasing integration, and desperate conditions, of our health and social care systems.

Homes England is another of the rebrandings favoured by this Government to signal – or distract our attention from the lack of any – significant policy change. Until this month it was the Homes and Communities Agency, whose CEO didn’t make last year’s Power List at all.

But, freed now from those pestilential Communities and able to focus more on its job of funding new affordable housing, it finds its Whitehall status and that of its Chief Exec massively enhanced.

I’ve just realised, typing that last paragraph, that the last ten Power List posts I’ve referred to are – more or less by chance – all filled by men.  In total, though, roughly a third of the 100 are women – still disappointing, but apparently the highest proportion yet – and that proportion is reflected in my own selection.

But they’re not at all evenly spread. I’ve drawn attention previously in these columns to how, for example, the 33-member WMCA board comprised 32 men and 1 woman.

That, however, was before Birmingham City Council’s leadership change, and – thanks to Brigid Jones’ election as the Council’s Deputy Leader, rather than any effort of the CA’s own to amend either its constitution or practice – women’s representation has now doubled.  So that’s OK, then.

More generally, I noted – Councillors Jones and Seccombe (No.16 in this year’s Power List) notwithstanding – the considerable discrepancy, particularly but not exclusively among the metropolitan boroughs, between the numbers of women council leaders and women chief executives.

Pleasingly – for the validity of my observation, NOT in any other sense – the same discrepancy is equally striking in the Power List. By my reckoning, male leaders – including mayors – outnumber women leaders by four to one, or 16 to 4 to be precise.

Women chief execs, by contrast, outnumber men by very nearly two to one, or 15 to 8 – heading what, almost by definition, are largely major and potentially challenging authorities: Manchester, Birmingham (+ the WMCA), Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle, Oldham, Wigan, Islington, Southwark, Surrey, etc.

At which point, someone’s bound to ask about BAME representation.  I have to admit that I don’t know precisely and the LGC aren’t saying.  I believe it’s only three in the top 50 – Sajid Javid and the Mayors of London and Bristol – but  .… oh dear, I’ve just realised I’m over the 1,000 words I allowed myself on this potentially limitless topic…

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