Chris Game wonders why, if ministers want us to vote for mayors, they make it so hard?
Even allowing for all the undecideds and the ooh-I’ve-not-heard-anything-about-its, opinion polls suggest that several of the ten referendums on May 3, and certainly Birmingham’s, could produce “yes” majorities for elected mayors.
Clearly, though, nothing is settled. So why are ministers, who support this potentially momentous change, making life so difficult for the “yes” campaigners?
Two issues come up at every mayoral meeting: What additional powers would a mayor have and how do we kick out a deadbeat?
With the Localism Act offering little help, and ministers even less, I will suggest some at least partial answers.
Powers were intended to be easy. In the original Localism Bill, undefined additional powers would go to mayoral authorities only. They were the bribe to get us to vote for the mayors that the Government wanted and most of us were indifferent about.
But the Lords crucially amended this bit of the Bill, enabling powers to be transferred to any “permitted authority”, provided they “would promote economic development …or increase local accountability”.
The bribe had gone, replaced only by a thinly disguised code – that cities wanting significant new powers must “demonstrate strong, visible and accountable leadership and effective decision-making structures” – universally interpreted as government-speak for having an elected mayor.
The requirement is part of the Government’s policy of “city deals” – bespoke packages of new powers, projects and funding sources, negotiated with the leaders of individual cities, in exchange for agreeing to work with the Government and other bodies to unlock these cities’ full growth potential.
It sounds encouragingly localist – until you realise the catch-22. Ministers want to negotiate individual city deals with elected mayors – they can’t say what any specific deal will comprise without knowing who they’ll be negotiating with – but voters, unless they know the likely content of their deal, are much less likely to opt for mayors.
Though inconvenient, this logic might just be acceptable, had ministers themselves not completely ignored it in publicising early deals with Liverpool, still to elect a mayor, and Manchester, outspokenly opposed to the whole idea.
There is still time for them to reveal some meaningful detail about the discussions already held with Birmingham and other referendum cities, but it seems unlikely.
“Yes” campaigners, therefore, must make the most of the two deals we do know about – not, as it turns out, too unpromising a task.
Liverpool’s city deal was announced on February 7 – the same day as the Labour Council, bypassing its electorate, took the decision itself to have an elected mayor who, once elected on May 3, would lead its implementation.
All involved insisted, however, that the deal was not dependent on the city having a mayor – which means that any city whose electors have actually voted for one will surely expect to negotiate a deal worth proportionately at least as much as Liverpool’s.
Liverpool City Council’s website headlines the deal’s additional economic development money as initially £130 million – “including £75 million of new money from government” – rising potentially to between £500 million and £1 billion.
Other goodies include an environmental technology zone, with the resulting growth in business rate income going to the local enterprise partnership (LEP) and five mayoral development zones; a mayoral investment board to oversee economic and housing strategy; and 12 new secondary schools.
Big questions, it is true, remain barely addressed. How much of all of this is genuinely new money? How much of this city deal has to be shared with the city-region LEP? What discretion will the mayor have to do things ministers don’t like?