The Treasury has announced that as part of its response to the Heseltine review on kick-starting growth, groups of councils which work together as “combined authorities” – such as those in West and South Yorkshire – will now be allowed to introduce a single mayor to govern the whole area, should they wish to do so.
The change raises the controversial prospect of the city of Bradford being run by a “West Yorkshire mayor” from Leeds town hall, or of Doncaster being overseen by a “South Yorkshire mayor” based in Sheffield.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post at a Westminster lunch event yesterday, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said it was for the councils in each local area to decide.
“I have no problem about governance,” he said. “If, say, West Yorkshire came to a view that they wanted to elect someone across a joint authority – fine. If they don’t, I don’t really mind.
“But any change that should take place should take place from within a local authority.”
The Government’s first attempt to introduce Boris Johnson-style Mayors to run big city councils across England was widely rejected by voters in a series of referendums last May.
Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Wakefield were among the cities to vote “no” to elected mayors.
But the idea was revived by Lord Heseltine in his growth report last November, which encouraged councils to work together as “combined authorities” as part of his devolution strategy, and called on Government to give these new federal bodies the opportunity to elect a single leader.
In its official response to that report this week, the Treasury said it will bring forward laws to allow so-called “conurbation mayors” as soon as possible.
“The Government has committed to support local authorities that wish to create a combined authority,” the Treasury said.
“The Government also accepts Lord Heseltine’s recommendation for conurbation mayors and intends, at the next available opportunity, to seek legislation for such Mayors where the authorities want this.”
There has been no suggestion as yet from councils in Yorkshire as to whether they might wish to introduce a “conurbation mayor”.
But Mr Pickles said he believes new governance structures will inevitably emerge as councils work more closely together.
“I think if you share finance and you share sovereignty, then governance will naturally (follow), because you’re going to want something to ensure one authority doesn’t dominate,” he said.
The Communities Secretary also dismissed the concerns of a growing number of council leaders who have warned their authorities will soon be unable to function properly due to the grant cuts he is imposing on them.
“There were predictions of doom and despondency and of the break-up of local government three years ago, two years ago, a year ago – and hand on heart it has not happened,” he said. “And that’s because local government is enormously adaptable.”
He said the financing of councils was now changing, with authorities being allowed to keep a share of the business rates for the first time.
This he said, would give councils an incentive to push for growth, rather than always asking for more central funds due to their area’s economic problems.
You could walk across Europe “and not find a single local authority funded like English local authorities,” he said.
“The worse you do, the more you get. If you show any initiative, we take grant away from you.”