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Lib Dem Peer and former city leader is mayoral convert

Lib Dem Peer and former city leader is mayoral convert

🕔28.Mar 2012

The key question being addressed by the Warwick (University) Commission on Elected Mayors and Civic Leadership could hardly be more topical or, as Referendum Day rapidly approaches, more urgent: ‘What is the key role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to cities?’ In the circumstances, it is perhaps a little disappointing that we’ve heard even less from the Commission than we have from Government ministers.

Slightly ironically, the one peep we have had – thanks to Paul Dale (February 23) – was that the Commission’s Chair, Professor Wyn Grant, agreed with most of the rest of us that the Government should stop being so irritatingly and self-defeatingly coy about the additional powers it would be prepared to see transferred to mayoral cities, and indicate a bit less vaguely what those powers would be.

As it happens, the Commission recently held its third and last timetabled meeting, following which a tweet assured us that its report, originally scheduled for this month, is ‘shaping up well’, with publication now expected in mid-April. It could be a case of the closer to Referendum Day itself, the greater the impact, but, as Marc Reeves suggested (March 20), the Institute for Government’s pre-Easter launch on March 29 of its latest mayoral volume will not be an easy asct to follow.

In the meantime, I do have a Commission-related news story that I feel is sufficiently interesting to be worth sharing – so that’s what I’m doing.

The Commission has six full members in addition to Professor Grant, one of whom – the one with by some way the most notable personal political career – is Lord Shipley of Gosforth.  A Lib Dem Peer, he’s also addressable as Councillor Lord John Shipley, for, having been a member of Newcastle City Council since 1975, and Leader from 2006-10, he unusually but commendably stayed on as a councillor after being ennobled and becoming a Government adviser on cities.

It was in this capacity that, during the parliamentary passage of the Localism Bill, he found himself working closely with Lord (Jeremy) Beecham, another longstanding member and former Leader of Newcastle City Council and now Labour spokesman for Communities and Local Government in the Lords – and also, by happy coincidence, an Associate Member of the Warwick Commission.

Though from different parties, both Peers played leading parts in what without doubt was one of the most significant changes in the Bill conceded by the Government – Amendment 114, the so-called Core Cities amendment, after the self-selected network of England’s eight largest city economies outside London.

The amendment provides for the Secretary of State to transfer a local public function – for instance, transport, housing, skills, regeneration – from a central government department or other public body to ‘a permitted authority’, provided it is considered that the transfer “would promote economic development or wealth creation, or increase local accountability in relation to each local public function transferred”.

That’s the localist bit, but the bit that really transformed this section of the Bill was interpretative Amendment 119, which defined ‘permitted authority’ not as a mayoral authority, as in the original Bill, but simply “an English local authority or a combined authority …”, whatever its form of executive leadership.

Suddenly, the big mayoral carrot had gone – just like that, as Tommy Cooper would have put it. The transferable functions may not have been spelt out, but it was this deal, for mayoral cities only, that was intended to persuade sceptical voters and even hostile councillors to vote Yes in their city referendums.  Now, however, there was no need, in the interests of your city’s greater autonomy, even to turn out; any additional powers going should be available to any major city authority, irrespective of its political management arrangements.

Lord Beecham, a vehement anti-mayorist, was close to rapturous:                                                                                                       

“As some of your Lordships will be aware, I am not an enthusiast for elected mayors by any means. I am therefore glad that the original restriction has been abandoned, because it seems to me important that councils with the more conventional model of leader and executive should have this opportunity.”

He was still fighting his corner in February, two months after the final bell of Royal Assent – as the Regulations were introduced into the Lords, authorising referendums in Birmingham and the other designated cities. To the Government motion to approve the regulations, Lord Beecham tabled a so-called regret motion, regretting that the Government was compelling city councils to hold the referendums,

“given that any English local authority, or five per cent of its electorate, can require a referendum to be held on whether to have an elected mayor; and that such referendums and consequent mayoral elections involve substantial costs at a time of acute financial stringency in local government and in the country.”

During his speech, Lord Beecham noted that several Conservative and Lib Dem Peers with similarly extensive local government experience shared his opposition to elected mayors – including, he thought, Lord Shipley. Responding, Lord Shipley acknowledged that his Labour colleague was:

“absolutely right that a year or two ago I felt that the balance of evidence was strongly against. I no longer believe that to be true.

“One of the key reasons – there are several – is the elected police commissioner, which I believe has altered the nature of representative democracy at a local level … as people get used to electing directly an individual to a role, it will be very odd if the leader of a council is not similarly elected.” (col. 90 – my emphasis)

He questioned Lord Beecham’s point about “substantial costs”, since the referendums would take place on a local election polling day, any elections on the same day as the election of police commissioners, and that Ministers had indicated councils’ referendum costs would be met in the first instance by central government. He felt too that in a big city the petition requirement of the signatures of 5% of registered electors – around 37,000 in Birmingham – was a prohibitive threshold, reinforcing the status quo.

There is, Lord Shipley concluded:  “a whole set of reasons why I think a mayoral system is right … it is partly about leadership, partly about figureheads, and partly about connecting the electorate with a person who is democratically accountable for what happens in that city.

“However, the argument goes further than that. It is better for a council leader – and I have been one myself – to be elected by the electorate as a whole rather than by a party caucus meeting, which is what happens in practice. In other words, if, for the sake of argument, you have 40 councillors and you are the majority party, you can actually elect the leader of that council – who has statutory powers – on 21 votes. I do not think that that is sufficient mandate and I have come to the conclusion that it is better to have a mayoral system where there is an electoral mandate for that person.” (cols. 91-92)

Last week, in a short article in the Local Government Chronicle, Lord Shipley added more in the same vein:                           “A couple of years ago I didn’t see the need for an elected mayor. Today I do.

Further very substantial devolution to Scotland will lead to further powers going to all devolved administrations including London. There are major consequences for England. Whitehall cannot run England as a single entity because England now has neither integrated government offices nor regional development agencies. Local Enterprise Partnerships can do a lot to regenerate their areas but they cannot fill the whole gap. Elected mayors in all our English regional capitals would help significantly because they would provide a powerful representative structure.

“The Government wants to pass down more powers from Whitehall – initially to those major cities which can lead growth. Those cities need new governance structures based on elected mayors to deliver the full potential of that devolution just as they have across Europe.”

On neither occasion did he add John Maynard Keynes’ famous reply to a criticism during the Great Depression of having changed his position on monetary policy: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”  But he easily might have.

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