In that time they have gone from an unknown innovation to an essential part of the British political structure. Amid a huge public health crisis, massive economic dislocation, and growing political disillusionment, they are proving their worth.
Tracy Brabin’s convincing victory in the West Yorkshire mayoral election is a huge opportunity to build on that. On everything from the economy to climate change, one devolved region is powerful – two working together is a powerhouse.
Of course, as a metro mayor myself, I’m not unbiased. I think devolution has had a real impact in South Yorkshire, allowing us to channel hundreds of millions of pounds into a coherent regional transport and active travel strategy, and agree half a billion more for a regional renewal plan.
But the best evidence is that on average 83 per cent of people in city regions that went to the polls on May 6 support giving more powers to their mayor.
That’s a resounding vote of confidence, but it also shows what’s missing. Mayors have shown their potential, but much of that potential will be unfulfilled until they are trusted with greater powers and responsibility.
That’s especially important in the epic battles to recover from the economic impacts of Covid and ‘level up’ disadvantaged areas of the country. You cannot do this without local leadership, and regional leadership in particular.
Many of the deep-rooted problems of infrastructure, skills and investment we face are too big for local government to deal with alone and too local to be managed by Whitehall.
Every level of government has an important role to play, but there is a powerful argument action should be led from the regions.
The question is whether government will trust mayors with that role. Their manifesto committed unequivocally to “full devolution across England” to enable “every part of our country…to shape its own destiny”.
But they seem to have forgotten their promised Devolution White Paper, and there are doubts over the Prime Minister’s commitment to the whole project amid clashes with mayors over Covid.
In practice, the Tories have consistently sought to funnel investment through an alphabet soup of fragmented, unreliable and often small-scale funding pots that are vulnerable to politicisation, tilted towards Whitehall’s agenda, and poisonous to long-term strategic planning.
The temptation to marginalise will be all the stronger since the elections, which saw the number of Conservative mayors reduced from four to just two, out of the 10 currently in existence. That would be a huge mistake.
If your vision of devolution is administrations that think like you and follow your agenda, that’s not devolution – it’s delegation. You cannot reap the benefits of devolution without genuinely empowering local know-how, innovation and accountability.
We need a culture of partnership which respects the role of devolved and local governments but also reflects that problems rarely need action just at one level.
Climate change is a good example: the critical role of cities is widely accepted, and I’m determined to pursue it vigorously. But it needs the centre to create tax incentives, develop large-scale renewable energy and help fund the transition.
That constructive relationship is possible – not just between regions and the centre but between the regions and local authorities, and indeed between one region and another, as Tracy and I hope to show.
But the foundation and driver for healthy partnership is real powers and real accountability. That links to another great argument for devolution. Our country has a dangerous deficit of democratic legitimacy. Almost 80 per cent of people believe our system needs reform.
Regional mayors have brought government closer to the people – and as we seek to reform the relationship between the different parts of the UK, regional devolution will have a critical role to play.
But, again, the Government needs to understand that potential can only be realised if they act in good faith. Instead they are forcing first past the post voting on mayoral elections, a cynical and nakedly partisan ploy after they lost in Cambridgeshire because of second preference votes. It’s exactly the sort of thing that has destroyed people’s faith in our democracy.
Devolution is making a difference, and its untapped potential is huge. But that potential will be wasted unless the Government has the vision to trust it.
Dan Jarvis is mayor of Sheffield City Region and Labour MP for Barnsley Central.
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