This morning’s papers report that the Government’s localisation programme has run into a serious snag over elected mayors.
Several of England’s major cities are pushing for a sweeping devolution of power, with city halls wielding the sort of authority currently vested in the Scottish Parliament and its sister chambers.
Yet George Osborne is firm that such powers must be accompanied by the creation of a directly elected mayor to oversee the authority in question.
In the Chancellor’s words such a figure would serve as a “point of accountability” compared to relatively anonymous councils. However, his insistence on this point has left him open to two political charges.
The first is opportunism. Many believe that elected mayors will afford competent, charismatic individual Conservatives the opportunity to win power in cities which on present form will never elect a collection of unknown people in blue rosettes to the council.
The second is of being undemocratic. With the exception of Bristol every English city that was offered an elected mayor declined to adopt one in a string of local plebiscites in 2012. City councils can thus argue with some force that the Government lacks any mandate to impose them now.
This latter point is especially frustrating because the case for local mayors – which forms part of the ConHome Manifesto – is a strong one.
As the ongoing saga of Scottish devolution makes abundantly clear, any transfer of power that does not pay proper mind to how such powers are exercised is heading for trouble.
Whilst Conservatives in local government such as David Hodge, leader of Surrey County Council, have been vocal champions of decentralisation the Government is right to be concerned about simply handing more authority to councils in an era of growing public disengagement from local politics and waning turnouts.
Writing for the Sunday Times (£) Camilla Cavendish points out that even this pro-localism administration is being forced to make massive central government interventions into “rotten boroughs” where one-party rule has seen local democracy wither away.
Yet despite the many arguments in favour of elected mayors many feel that the Government did not work nearly hard enough to make its case in 2012. Faced with the determined – and predictable – opposition of most of their councillors, mayors met the same fate as the North East Regional Assembly.
With the direct approach having failed, the Chancellor is now proceeding by way of inducements: cities such as Manchester, which has agreed to an elected mayor for the ten-borough metropolitan area, receive more powers and additional funding than those, such as Sheffield and Leeds, which don’t.
Some councils are again objecting, and for the same reasons. But they are mistaken when they claim that Osborne is somehow forcing mayors on an unwilling people.
Cities which decline do, after all, receive some powers. The Chancellor has simply made the acquisition of additional powers contingent upon structural reform to ensure that such powers do not end up proving detrimental either to local people or to the broader British constitution. It is up to cities to make that choice.
The Government is finally applying to local government the lesson it took far too long to learn from Scotland and Wales: it is entirely legitimate to support devolution without letting those demanding it have everything they want, on whatever terms they want.