Alexandra Jones is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.
Despite vocal opposition to devolution deals, there is strong public support for the Government’s agenda.
While the travails of the Labour Party have largely dominated the media in recent months, it’s also been a tough eight weeks for the Government since the Budget in March – with the housing bill’s troubled passage through Parliament, Zac Goldsmith’s failed London mayoral campaign, and last week’s climb-down on plans to turn all schools in to academies.
Amidst these issues, it has largely gone unnoticed that the Government’s devolution agenda is also under pressure.
Opposition to devolution in East Anglia and the North East is hindering plans to introduce metro-mayors and combined authorities in those places, while new deals announced in the Budget for the West of England and Solent city-regions still need to be finalised – with the deadline to get them agreed in time for the planned metro-mayor elections in May 2017 looming.
Critics of the devolution agenda have often focused on the new mayoral roles, which have been derided as a top-down Government imposition on UK cities, unwanted by the public and concentrating too much power in the hands of one individual.
Detractors have also pointed to the failed local authority mayoral referenda of 2012 – proposals which covered different geographies, and offered no additional powers – as evidence for the lack of public support for city-region mayors.
However, new ComRes polling published today suggests that actually there is in fact strong public backing for powerful new metro-mayors in the five biggest city-regions due to introduce the roles next May – with a majority (57 per cent) in favour of new mayors having greater powers than local councillors, and taking the lead in addressing critical issues such as housing and transport in their regions.
The question for the Government, and for city-regions, is therefore not whether the new metro-mayors will be too powerful, as some critics have suggested – but rather, whether they will be powerful enough to deliver on public expectation.
Compared to the Mayor of London, for example, the new mayors will be more limited in their scope to take action, and will have to work closely with cabinets of local councillors in each city-region, who can veto some mayoral decisions with a two thirds majority.
While checks-and-balances are rightly built into the devolution deals, it’s vital that mayors have genuine scope to take decisive action to support job creation, build homes and raise wages in their city-regions.
For that to happen, the impetus will also be on the new mayors to not only maintain strong relationships with councillors but also take full advantage of their considerable mandate – having been elected by hundreds of thousands of people – to act boldly and decisively on behalf of people living in their city-regions.
For its part, the Government must stick to its guns on devolution.
Of course, any reform of a constitutional nature will be inherently difficult and politically challenging. Ultimately, there is no way of knowing for sure what a more devolved system will look like in practice, which is inevitable given the scale and complexity of the reforms, and is as true for devolution as it is for changes in policy in the health service, education or defence.
But any signal that the Government is re-thinking it’s commitment to the mayoral model for big city regions risks de-railing the entire process.
The argument being put forward in certain parts of the country that the public are hostile to the idea of new city-region mayors does not hold. The public want to see strong city-region leaders – the Government must continue its drive to introduce them in the major city regions in 2017.