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Don’t go weak on metro mayors, think tank boss warns Government

Don’t go weak on metro mayors, think tank boss warns Government

🕔05.Aug 2016

The slightest weakening in the Government’s resolve to create a network of metro mayors across English city regions could put devolution at risk and gift power back to Whitehall, a leading think tank has warned.

Centre for Cities says if Ministers back away from mayors in any one area then agreements elsewhere could be put at risk.

In a plea to Theresa May to spell out what industrial strategy and devolution will look like under the new Government, Centre for Cities chief executive Alexandra Jones says the Prime Minister should bank the progress” already made to make sure metro mayors develop into a “cadre of powerful voices” for city regions including towns, rural areas, and suburbs.

She warns:

The mayoral orders are in Parliament – get them agreed and we’ve got a cadre of powerful voices for city regions, including towns, rural areas and suburbs that will be at the heart of improving productivity over the next decade.

They will also provide a single figurehead for their place who can be held to account by local citizens, the media and Parliament for public spending, services, investment etc.

If the Government backs away from mayors in any one area, the agreements elsewhere could be put at risk. Changing these policies could also mean still-sceptical civil servants seize the chance to pull back powers – and their reluctance to let go cannot be underestimated, nor their desire to return to the centralised status quo.

The warning that devolved powers may yet be pulled back to the centre appears to be aimed at regions like the West Midlands which is to elect a metro mayor next May to oversee transport, economic development, housing and skills.

Politicians from the main political parties remain, at best, sceptical about the mayoral model and are attempting to minimise the powers that the mayor will have. A final decision will be made by the Government, but with the demise of devolution champion George Osborne, town hall leaders will be keen to discover whether Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, is as enthusiastic about mayors.

Centre for Cities’ warning comes with a caveat. Ms Jones adds that keeping big city region mayors should not mean that smaller cities or rural areas have to embrace mayors to gain more powers.

The think tank makes four other recommendations to the Government:

1. Make sure industrial policy makes the most of cities and city regions, as they are best placed to boost economic growth and sluggish productivity.

City centres are increasingly the location of the most productive, knowledge intensive businesses that generate most economic growth, and they rely heavily on surrounding towns, suburbs and rural areas for workers and suppliers. To get significant levels of economic growth, Government must boost the big city regions

This means giving big city regions greater control over transport, skills, planning and finances, enabling them to tackle some of the specific local constraints to growth identified by local businesses and particular local sectors.

2. Ensure economic growth policies take decisions at the lowest efficient geography.

At a time when Whitehall and Westminster have a formidable ‘to do’ list, they should not be trying to do everything on economic growth and industrial policy themselves. Partnerships already exist to support policy development and delivery in the form of combined authorities, or across city regions. Local areas should be empowered to devise or deliver policy on industrial strategy, and beyond that on public services, where they will know far more about what is effective and efficient, rather than continuing to have civil servants deciding almost everything in Whitehall.

3. Make skills and innovation a national priority and work closely with city regions to deliver on these aspirations.

One of the biggest differences between people and areas that are successful and those that struggle is skills and innovation. It’s vital that the May government does not fall into the historic trap of neglecting investment in human capital because its benefits take so long to come through. The Government’s national industrial strategy must prioritise skills and work closely with local areas and key institutions across the UK to ensure everyone, from early years to those already in the workforce, can get the education and training they need to prosper in the modern economy. Government should make the most of city regions’ ability to bring together knowledge intensive businesses, universities and lots of skilled people to support higher levels of innovation, which will be vital for future economic growth and productivity.

4. Borrow to invest, working closely with city regions.

With the relaxation of George Osborne’s fiscal rules, there is an opportunity for the Government to invest in infrastructure projects that generate jobs in the short term, and could help city regions attract businesses, jobs and investment in the long term, for example giving new mayors additional funds to improve travel within city regions to help those in more deprived areas access jobs. An industrial strategy that makes the most of devolution should also allow areas to borrow against local revenue and invest prudentially in infrastructure that unlocks development.

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