Martin Vickers: Be radical and bring on the mayors

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I CAN understand the logic: there is no doubt that the more localised power and resources are, the more that innovative ideas come forth, encouraging growth and regeneration in our towns and cities.

I would be much more radical than the Government, who are being a little too cautious. The time has come to sweep away the existing structure of local governments. Districts are dying – they are being combined, with joint offices and so on – and ultimately they will wither on the vine. Perhaps that is what the Government are looking for. We should have unitary authorities across the board. The time is rapidly approaching for us to state clearly that that would be best, and to get on and deliver it.

Combined authorities are okay, but they lack proper democratic accountability. I would like to see unitary authorities headed by elected mayors. I have always advocated having elected mayors; that would draw into local government and administration individuals who are perhaps not currently particularly enthused about becoming local councillors and determining how regularly the grass should be cut.

We want community leaders who can be ambassadors for their area and be like Members of Parliament should be: another thorn in the side of Government on behalf of their local communities.

I was a local councillor for 26 years. I sat for part of that time on a district authority, and then, when Humberside County Council was thankfully swept away, on one of the unitary authorities that came forth from it.

Humberside was a classic example of Government doing things that were completely opposed by local people. The council was opposed by those from across the political spectrum, but I am afraid that representations came to naught, and we suffered 20-odd years of an authority that, quite honestly, was despised – that is not too strong a word – by most people on the south bank of the Humber.

They felt that power and resources were concentrated in Hull. Local people need to be able to identify with any system of government. The reality is that, as well as having their national identity, people identify with their town, village and county. Any form of administration is best modelled on those units.

One reason why elected mayors were not enthusiastically received by the people in those towns that held referendums two or three years ago is that there was no encouragement from their local authorities.

In the main, local councillors do not like the thought of elected mayors or reorganisation, because of course that would hit at their power base. That reaction is understandable, but the time has come for us to look at the bigger picture.

The Government should not be trying to encourage, support and cajole local authorities into forming combined authorities with metro mayors and so on; they should be keen advocates for elected mayors and should allow local people to make the decision.

I think I am right in saying that local citizens can effectively overrule the wishes of their local council by initiating a referendum. As far as I know, the threshold requires five per cent of voters to call for one; I urge the Government to reduce that – to halve it, or make it one or two per cent.

That would encourage local people to mount their own campaigns. Perhaps individuals with their eye on the mayoralty would encourage local campaigns as well.

To conclude, I urge the Government not to mess around, but to go for the jugular and be radical. There will, of course, be difficulties, but there are difficulties in the Government’s current approach, because trying to get agreement among six, seven or eight authorities is quite a challenge.

I would not compare it with the major problems throughout the world, but it is a diplomatic challenge. Ministers should go for it, sweep the present structure away and have unitary authorities with elected mayors.

“Elected mayor” is perhaps an unfortunate choice of title though, because the British people associate their mayor with his or her civic role—wearing the red gown when meeting royalty, or in their chains of office opening the church bazaar. We are looking for an elected leader of the council. If the Government’s aim to regenerate our towns and cities 
is to succeed, I urge them to be a little more radical.

Martin Vickers is the Tory MP for Cleethorpes who spoke in a recent Parliamentary debate on devolution. This is an edited version.