George Osborne said yesterday:
“I am putting on the table and starting the conversation about serious devolution of powers and budgets for any city that wants to move to a new model of city government – and have an elected Mayor. A Mayor for Greater Manchester. A Mayor for Leeds. With powers similar to the Mayor of London.”
Last week at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron said:
“I am a fan of directly elected mayors. However, the people of Birmingham had their chance to make that decision and they voted not to have a mayor. I hope that people will see successful mayors in London, Liverpool, Bristol and other parts of the country, and see that there are benefits from that approach. I agree with her that, even if we do not move to a mayoral system, there is more that we can do through city deals, local enterprise partnerships and devolving some of the funding in Whitehall further down towards cities and regions.
“All that would be to the good. It is worth while and welcome that in its policy review, her party has decided not to tear up local enterprise partnerships, but to extend them. It is good that there is cross-party agreement on how to drive devolution out to our great cities around the country.”
Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron are right to wish to devolve further power. However, the way to strengthen local democracy though more directly elected mayors will come from the bottom up rather than the top down. The challenge is to gain five per cent of the electorate to sign up to trigger a referendum. That is significant – but nor insurmountable. It was recently achieved in Copeland.
It will really come about not be through Ministerial speeches but through diverse groups of residents gathering petitions.
Two years ago the citizens of Bristol opted for a directly elected Mayor. But several other cities rejected the idea – although some, such as Manchester, did so quite narrowly. The trouble these were referendums made in Whitehall.
What about a grassroots challenge to the Labour monoliths in Newcastle, Nottingham, Coventry and Wakefield?
What about a shake up at Leeds City Council? (That council’s current spending priorities featured on the front page of The Sun yesterday.)
Revitalising accountability in these and other local authority areas – not just cities but smaller towns and London boroughs – through triggering directly elected mayors is not just a mission for Conservatives.
But it is a cause where Conservatives can build an alliance with other groups – small businesses hit by excessive Business Rates, free schools campaigners frustrated by an obstructive town hall bureaucracy, motorists faced with extortionate charges, residents associations and amenity groups who dislike the brutalist architecture being imposed by council planners.