The metro mayoral dilemma: how to big-up without overselling

Chris Game

Well, that was fun – the Daily Mail’s high-speed impression of the Grand Old Duke of York. In Monday’s first edition we were marched to the top of the hill, to glimpse a vista of a snap May 4th General Election, a Prime Ministerial Brexit mandate, and a three-figure Conservative Commons majority stretching way into the distance. And by the lunchtime edition we’d been marched down again, accompanied by much harrumphing about unfounded rumour-mongering.

With not calling an early election being among the few subjects on which Theresa May has been utterly consistent, the surprise would have been if she had. And my sole reason for raising it here is that, whatever its macro-political effects, a synchronous General Election would have significantly increased the likely turnout in the six metro mayoral elections, and consequently enhanced the profile, legitimacy and general political clout of both the new office and its first incumbents – all currently at a premium.

In the metropolitan West Midlands, then, we’re not going to see on May 4th the probably 60-65% turnout that was the 2015 General Election figure. That would have enabled the new mayor, in his or her meetings with ministers, to claim to be representing not only nearly 2 million electors, but perhaps 1 million who had actually participated in their election. Which in turn would make it that smidgen harder for the centre to cut local funding and resist further devolution, rationalising that few vote for and therefore care about their local government.

But now that’s off, what can we expect? A former student asked me recently – more or less a true story! – what the average turnout had been in all mayoral elections since Ken Livingstone’s first election as London Mayor in 2000. 38.7%, I told him, or thereabouts. He was surprised – and less by the confirmation that I was indeed one of those seriously sad people who know such things than by the figure itself. And of course he was right to be.

He fancied putting a bet (in the low-20s) on the percentage turnout on May 4th, when in the four metropolitan and unitary Combined Authorities (CAs) – West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, and Tees Valley – there are no other significant elections taking place. This year in the electoral cycle is shire county year, which should boost the mayoral turnout a bit in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and West of England, but won’t help the others.

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If only I’d had my table with me, I could have shown my ex-student how that overall 38.7% masked the relatively respectable turnouts when mayoral polls had coincided with other elections, and particularly a so-called ‘first-order’ national (General) election, when voters reckon considerably more is at stake.

But when ‘only’ a mayoralty has been the prize – merely the elected political leadership of one’s city, town or borough – turnouts have been almost unexceptionally feeble. And those have been in established local authorities, familiar to electors, rather than new, huge, amorphous, unelected bodies that most voters have barely heard of.

And the situation gets worse. Most voters with at least some awareness of metro mayors fondly imagine these new politicians foisted upon us will have powers to do the things that we think are most urgent and would like them to do. Tough!

In last May’s Centre for Cities/ComRes poll – still the most comprehensive on metro mayors – of the five issues West Midlands respondents felt should be the priorities for politicians in their city, only one, housing, was something that would be among the responsibilities devolved either to a West Midlands metro mayor or even the Combined Authority.

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Aspects of health and social care, education, and emergency services may possibly be devolved in the future. But on May 5th most of the mayor’s attention will go to business support and inward investment, transport, and colleges and adult skills that only about one in 20 possible voters have as their priorities.

It’s a big disjunction and on the face of it a recipe for yet further voter disillusionment. And a major dilemma for those who genuinely believe that elected mayors represent the best chance we’re likely to have of decentralising serious power to England’s localities and regions: how to ‘big-up’ the potential of metro mayors without misrepresenting and overselling them.

I have neither the answer nor much space, but I was struck this week by the Institute for Government’s latest ‘Local Leadership event’ – ‘How will new mayors work with Whitehall to improve their city-regions?’, and particularly the encapsulation of the IfG’s mayoral case by its Director of Development, Dr Jo Casebourne.

Emphasise, she suggested, these mayors’ difference from either existing or previously rejected mayors; that they’re leaders of place – of functional economic areas, not councils; able to provide visible, legitimate and accountable leadership and wield ‘soft power’, with better access to ministers and to other public sector bodies across their regions; and outward-looking and future-focused, able to attract inward investment and, working with other mayors, to secure, as in London, more devolved powers, both functional and financial, in the future.

 

Chris Game - pic

 

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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Combined Authorities and Del Boy Devolution

Chris Game

It was quicker than a full-term pregnancy. In late January, less than nine months after the General Election, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act (CLGDA) received its Royal Proclamation – sorry, Assent. By which time eight bonny ‘devolution deals’ had already been hatched out into the local government world.

For the record and terminological clarity, these comprise the five established Combined Authorities (CAs) – Greater Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool City Regions, West Yorkshire, and North East – the announced West Midlands and Tees Valley CAs, plus unitary Cornwall’s non-CA deal. All but West Yorkshire and Cornwall are elected mayor-based. An eighth proposed CA, North Midlands – Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire – could be said to be experiencing Labour pains, since one reported cause of its delayed confirmation was local Conservative MPs’ concern that the two Labour-inclined counties could elect the wrong kind of mayor.

Had these devo deals been babies, suspicious relatives might have been making legitimacy checks by counting the weeks. Here, though, the concern is less legitimacy than motive. Was all this haste confirmation of the Government’s, and particularly Chancellor George Osborne’s, genuine commitment to overthrowing “the old, broken model of trying to run everything in our country from the centre of London”? Or/and something else?

The Commons Communities & Local Government Committee, while welcoming the principle of the Government’s ‘bespoke’ approach to devolution, wasn’t convinced of either its commitment or capacity to deliver. It judged the policy so far to have been rushed, politically driven, and lacking in direction, rigour, assessable outcomes, and democratic or public engagement. The Institute for Government (p.9) was similarly critical: a compressed and “opaque proposal and negotiation process …”, comprising “unspoken expectations … [and] unwritten rules”.

Neither review, though, noted more than in passing the question that’s increasingly preoccupied the local government world for the past several not months, but years: is the real agenda behind much of this devolution stuff reorganisation or unitarisation by stealth? About doing covertly what Sir Eric Pickles denied himself overtly as Communities Secretary with his 2008 promise to shoot with his pearl-handled revolver the first civil servant proposing local government reorqanisation? It was there in the original Bill but largely overlooked, then boosted by one of several late Government amendments. Now, it seems, any erstwhile stealth has been supplanted by something resembling Del Boy Devolution.

Various INLOGOV colleagues have commented in these columns on aspects of the Government’s devolution policy virtually since the CLGDA’s conception (and that really is the last outing for this metaphor). It’s an appropriate moment, therefore, for an update, focusing particularly on some of those late and under-reported changes during the Bill’s parliamentary progress.

First, though, a bullet-point summary of what is an essentially enabling Act, whose main legislative function is to amend and extend the 2009 Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act (LDEDCA) that introduced CAs. With little reference to the content to the ‘devolution deals’ that are its chief product, the CLGDA’s core provisions relating to CAs:

  • empower the Secretary of State (SoS) to create mayoral CAs with a directly elected  Mayor who will chair the CA and may, with the SoS’s approval, raise a precept on constituent authorities’ council tax bills;
  • extend CAs’ limited remit of economic development, regeneration and transport to include any local government function, including health service functions;
  • remove CAs’ boundary restrictions prohibiting non-contiguous or doughnut- shaped areas;
  • empower the SoS to require the mayor to exercise specified functions individually, including those of the Police and Crime Commissioner;
  • empower the SoS to transfer to mayoral CAs the functions of other public authorities in the CA’s area, including government departments, but not county or district councils; also to confer on a CA the general power of competence;
  • require CAs to appoint audit and overview and scrutiny committees.

It’s hard to believe that, without the apparently irresistible rhyme, even George Osborne would have dared label as a ‘Devolution Revolution’ a package involving minimal fiscal devolution, no subsidiarity presumption, and no formula for lastingly rebalancing the relationship between central and local government. Certainly, the recurring ‘empower the SoS’ mantra in the bullet-point summary makes it manifest who in the first instance is the chief enablee here. This is a top-down, Osborne-controlled, ministerially managed devolution – or ‘Treasury Power Grab’, as Jim McMahon, Oldham’s new MP, former council leader and Northern Powerhouse architect, described it in his recent maiden speech (Jan 19, Col. 1369).

But that’s not the main point in this particular blog, which is more about the legislation’s footnotes. As summarised above, the Act’s key provisions read much as they did in the original Bill – though not necessarily the same as in interim versions. The required elected mayor was critics’ main target throughout, and, perhaps distractingly for those rushing to prepare devolution bids, from July onwards (within days of Cornwall’s non-mayoral deal being announced) the Bill contained a Lords amendment overruling the requirement that an elected mayor be a precondition for the transfer of functions to a CA.

In December, predictably enough, the requirement was restored by the Commons, and indeed strengthened. Notwithstanding the arguments of the LGA (p.17) and others that an elected mayor is not the only, or invariably the most effective, accountability model available, the amendment would, claimed ministers, risk jeopardising the Greater Manchester and Sheffield deals already negotiated. Besides which, it was in the Conservative manifesto, and thus merited strengthening. The SoS’s power to require an existing CA to adopt an elected mayor and remove a dissenting council now allows such an order to be made when more than just one council dissents, provided two constituent councils plus the CA do consent. As we’ll see again shortly, consent is not a big thing with this Government.

There’s a rambly bit in St Matthew’s gospel that struck me as relevant here. After warning about false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing, it switches to bad trees not bearing good fruit – and therefore “by their fruits ye shall know them”. Here, I’d suggest that “by their late amendments ye shall know them”.

There was an exceptional number – 87 Government amendments alone considered by the Lords on Jan 12 (Col. 139) – partly due presumably to the speed of the Bill’s drafting and partly to its being sent to the Lords first. Many were uncontentious drafting changes – but most of the substantive ones, like elected mayors, took the form of restoring the status quo ante, the Government’s Commons majority having now rejected an earlier Lords amendment.

There was the odd conciliatory concession, like agreeing to the SoS providing annual reports to Parliament detailing devolution progress in all areas of England – harmless enough, with the information presumably already in the public domain. But anything conceivably problematic – requiring all Government Bills to include a ‘devolution statement’ that they are consistent with the principle of devolving power to the most appropriate level, or removing the SoS’s discretion in assigning CAs the general power of competence, or reducing the voting age for local government elections from 18 to 16 – forget it.

Which brings us to reorganisation. There were two relevant clauses in the original Bill, neither initially attracting great attention. One streamlined the procedure for creating a CA or amending the structure of an existing one by empowering the SoS (once again) to make an order, rather than wait for the relevant authorities to produce a ‘scheme’.

A late Government amendment took this streamlining further – or, as ministers prefer, increased local flexibility – by removing councils’ vetoes over CA boundaries. A district council can now join a CA without requiring its county council’s consent; likewise, even collectively, districts can no longer veto their county council joining a CA. Late it may have been, but it has potentially big implications – for Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, for example, both of whose northern districts would now be able to join Sheffield City Region without their county councils’ consent.

The other clause, in a different section altogether from CAs in the original Bill, was also directed at two-tier areas. Acknowledging some such areas’ dearth of enthusiasm for particularly mayoral CAs, it provided for the devolution of functions and powers to single local authorities acting alone. Orders could be made (by the SoS, of course) to introduce fast-track changes in respect of boundary reviews (as in Cornwall’s deal) and governance arrangements, which, it was explained, “may involve mergers of councils, moves to unitary structures, or changing the democratic representation of the area with different electoral cycles and fewer councillors”.

It seems a kind of Del Boy approach to devolution that presumably comes naturally to a business-driven government. The rack rate for devolved powers is an elected mayor, but get together with your mates or offer us up a few councillors and we should be able to do you a deal. Indeed, possibly a streamlined deal, as another late Government amendment enables the SoS to make changes in council boundaries with the consent, if necessary, of just one authority in the relevant area.

This is the reorganisation or unitarisation by stealth that exercises councillors and MPs alike, and it produced some of the most agitated contributions to the Bill’s Commons Report Stage – the only thing being, as the Minister pointed out, that it’s hardly by stealth, since the Government has had the power to impose structural change without the consent of local councils since the 2007 Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Devolution’s biggest hurdle: Whitehall’s culture of contempt

Chris Game

Labour published its draft 2015 local government manifesto recently. Entitled Labour and localism: perspectives on a new English deal, the core of the deal is a radical new approach to the financing of local government:

“ … too much power is hoarded in Whitehall.  That’s why we need a fundamental shift from the centre to the local – communities, towns, cities and counties – which gives more power to people and to the elected politicians we already have.” (p.4)

Sounds good, doesn’t it, but also perhaps faintly familiar? Compare and contrast, as they say, with this:

“Over the last forty years, governments of all colours have been guilty of weakening local government. Bureaucratic control has replaced democratic accountability. Hoarding of power by distant politicians and unaccountable officials in Whitehall has damaged society by eroding trust.

“We believe if you decentralise power, you get better results and better value for money. So the plans in this manifesto represent an unprecedented redistribution of power and control from the central to the local, from politicians and the bureaucracy to individuals, families and neighbourhoods.”

The comparison, I think you’ll agree, shows that they’re pretty similar – lots of Whitehall hoarding being supplanted by earth-moving shifts of power to localities. The contrast is that the second quote comes from the Conservatives’ manifesto in 2010 – p.73, to be precise.

Which means, of course, that the ‘unprecedented redistribution’ must already be well underway. Evidence on the ground, however, suggests otherwise.  I doubt, for instance, if Somerset Levels residents, whose ground is currently flooded, reckon they’ve seen much redistribution – of power, that is, not water. They’ve discovered the hard way that, even if their elected local drainage boards manage to persuade the unelected Environment Agency that dredging and other flood defence work is necessary, what actually happens is determined by the Agency’s funding from the Department for Environment, and ultimately by benefit-to-cost rules imposed by the Treasury.

That’s how things work, in our most hypercentralised of governmental systems. As Yes, Minister taught us back in the 1980s and, as that Conservative manifesto acknowledged, Whitehall bureaucracy trumps local democracy every time.

Regarding local government, it’s hard to know whether the politicians who signed up to that 2010 decentralisation pledge, or the Ministers subsequently responsible for implementing it, ever really believed in it – other than as a vote-winning slogan. Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, self-admittedly didn’t. His brand of what he calls ‘muscular localism’ involves effectively setting councils’ tax and spending levels and telling them how often they should empty our refuse bins.

Cities Minister, Greg Clark, at least tries to walk the localisation walk, with his City Deals policy of stimulating city-driven economic growth through negotiated packages of powers and discretions. However, doubling until recently as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, few knew better than Clark where the serious power in Britain resides, irrespective of the party in government.  It’s in Whitehall departments and ultimately in the quaintly addressed Unit 1, Horse Guards Road, aka Her Majesty’s Treasury – between them a far more formidable obstacle to a genuine English devolution deal than any temporary bunch of Ministers.

Were any confirmation needed, it’s come in spades recently, in the Institute for Government’s fascinating study, Achieving Political Decentralisation, of how and why opposition parties so good at making commitments to devolve power have as governments found it so hard to implement them. Tom Gash and his IfG colleagues identify from their case studies a pleasingly neat, if depressing, ten obstacles to reform that anyone seeking to decentralise power must navigate.

At Number 1 – where else could it be? – is Resistance from national government, the essence of which is “the fact that ministers and civil servants simply do not trust sub-national government to competently exercise additional powers and … constantly worry that they will “do something barmy” (p.20). It almost beggars belief, doesn’t it? The civil service folks who brought us the NHS IT programme, the Child Support Agency, the West coast rail franchising fiasco, non-flying Chinook helicopters, and mothballed aircraft carriers sit around worrying about other people’s sanity and competence!

Unfortunately, there’s a serious point here, although – certainly on this platform – I’m inclined to put it less genteely than the IfG. Whitehall departments’ resistance to devolution doesn’t stem just from it being their powers and budgets that parties, when in opposition, want to devolve. Much worse, the beneficiaries would be a collection of local councils and politicians that senior civil servants generally regard in much the way that Mr Banks, prior to being saved by Mary Poppins, viewed his children: with an unconcealed mixture of disdain and distrust.

For the alliteratively inclined, it amounts to a culture of centralist contempt, and is naturally seen most obviously in the big things: local government’s huge dependence on central funding, the centre’s stranglehold on councils’ housebuilding, planning, and indeed their total budgets. If you actually work in local government, though, it’s possibly the smaller things – the almost daily drip, drip of petty insult, distrust, denigration and condescension – that really get you down. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples from last week’s drips – one trivial but irritating, one non-trivial and infuriating.

First, we have a typical illustration of how our Communities Secretary, when aggrieved, resorts to the role of Victorian paterfamilias and takes it out on his local authority children. Thwarted by Cabinet colleagues from reducing the council tax referendum trigger from an increase of 2% to 1.5 or even 1%, Pickles immediately put before Parliament alternative proposals he claimed would protect ‘hard-working families’ from their greedy councils: requiring them to publish, as a matter of record, each councillor’s individual vote on any council tax changes.

The Minister had discovered that most councils’ budget votes last year, whether to freeze or increase their council tax, were by a show of hands, with just the totals or results recorded in the Minutes. He disingenuously implies that this represents something underhand, although, as a onetime council leader, he knows full well that this is how most council votes are taken – a ‘named vote’ being taken only if called for by a specified number of councillors.

Taking Labour-controlled Birmingham as an example, there were in fact three named votes at last February’s Council budget meeting, on amendments proposed by the minority Conservative and Lib Dem parties. Named votes were called for, and the amendments were comfortably defeated by Labour’s 71 councillors voting en bloc – precisely as they would have done in support of the main motions to approve the Council’s Business Plan, Budget and Council Tax Requirement.

And that’s the point. In most council votes, as in Parliament, councillors vote with their party, and when one party has a clear overall majority, a named vote serves little purpose and wastes time. If Pickles wants to argue that the annual setting of the level of council tax is uniquely important, that’s fine. But to pretend that recorded votes will enhance local accountability and keep tax rates down is a deception of his hard-working families, as well as confirmation that he feels it entirely appropriate for a Cabinet Minister to dictate in detail how elected local governments conduct their business.

My second case is an archetypal central government gaffe – an example of what happens when you legislate from the centre without adequate consultation or scrutiny. This time it was the Bedroom Tax (or Spare Room Subsidy) – last April’s controversial change by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that cut the housing benefit of those living in a council or housing association property deemed to have one or more spare bedrooms. The legislation should have exempted working-age tenants who had been living at the same address and entitled to claim housing benefit continuously since 1 January 1996. Basic as it seems, it didn’t – meaning that estimated tens of thousands of tenants are entitled to refunds of around £640 for 40 weeks of undue reductions.

To ordinary citizens, expecting perhaps at least a hint of humility, the DWP’s response to councils might seem extraordinary, and even for those of us only too familiar with the ways of central government, it was a minor classic. First, they disputed all local government and housing professionals’ estimates of the numbers. Their methodology calculated that “very few” households – maybe 5,000 – were affected.

Second, no, they wouldn’t disclose their methodology, even to the Local Government Association. Third, while the DWP would of course close the loophole, councils could pay for the department’s unfortunate slip-up by footing the bill for identifying, locating and refunding the relevant claimants. And you thought maybe I was exaggerating, talking of a centralist culture of contempt?

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Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.