He accused Ministers of having lost enthusiasm for more devolution, saying there was no sign of them living up to the pledge to enhance the powers of all mayors to the same level as those that Andy Burnham enjoys in Greater Manchester.
Is it fair to make this criticism of government, especially given that we now have mayors in West and South Yorkshire and plans are in progress for North and East Yorkshire?
It is certainly true that the White Paper on devolution that was promised for last year has now been rolled into a Levelling Up White Paper due sometime this year.
Is there going to be an about-face from a party that has been largely responsible for devolution within England?
Although legislating for a London Mayor in 1998, Labour failed to win endorsement in a referendum in 2004 for a regional assembly in the North East. The devolution mantle was picked up with enthusiasm by the Chancellor, George Osborne, in the 2010 coalition Government
In the same year that he first referred to a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – 2014 – it was announced that a Mayor of Greater Manchester would be created. Metro mayors soon followed in the Tees Valley, Merseyside, the West Midlands, and the West of England.
The point being made by Heseltine wasn’t about the spread of devolution where the Government has committed to extending mayors to all parts of England, it was about the powers, funding and recognition that mayors have.
These vary. Most have some powers over planning, housing, transport and skills, with some also acting as the police and crime commissioner. Greater Manchester’s metro mayor is alone in also having control over health and social care budgets.
Britain still has one of the most centralised governments in the world. Its whole instinct is one of central control. This was well illustrated at the start of the pandemic when, despite there being local competencies in setting up test and trace, all the work was pulled into being administered centrally with what is now recognised as not having been very effective.
The Treasury is the most centralising part of government, keeping a very tight grip on all spending. Aligning with it are officials and ministers in government departments who are not keen to give up power, especially over funding.
Ministers love going out into the regions distributing largesse, announcing a few million here for a transport project or another few million there for extra training. They then hope the inhabitants demonstrate how grateful they are by voting for them at the next election. If they devolved all these decisions and spending to mayors, how could they curry favour with local people?
The Government will be particularly protective of its ability to show that it is Ministers who are going to be responsible for ‘levelling up’. They have promised it, want to be seen to be delivering it, and will want all the credit. This is regardless of the fact that perhaps it is the local mayor who will know best what his or her area needs to enable it to prosper.
It would take a brave Prime Minister or Chancellor to make this political decision, never mind radical permanent secretaries who are willing to let go of some of their levers of power and spending.
Although mayors can’t force governments to give them more power, they can (and are doing) more to get recognition of the role that they play.
It was interesting to hear from Tracy Brabin, West Yorkshire’s new mayor, that when she told some fellow MPs that she was standing down from Parliament to be mayor, they questioned why she was giving it up to go into local government. The fact that a mayor can have far more impact than a backbench MP seems to have passed them by.
As Andy Burnham and Ben Houchen in Teesside have proved, the recognition will come if you do the job well.
Therein lies another rub, the more effective mayors are seen to be, so this discourages Ministers from giving them the wherewithal to be even more significant.
The White Paper is an opportunity to mark a defining shift of power and funding to the local level. Will Ministers be brave and humble enough to admit that local people know better than they do what’s best for their area?
Ed Jacobs is a director at The Public Affairs Company based in Leeds.
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