The case for new power

May 4th saw a quiet revolution in local government when voters in six metropolitan areas — Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Peterborough and Cambridge, Tees Valley, the West of England and the West Midlands — elected metro-mayors. A seventh metropolitan area — the Sheffield city region — will elect a mayor in 2018, and others may well follow in future years.

For the Devolution and Local Government Act providing for metro-mayors is enabling legislation setting up a legislative framework which can be applied flexibly to different areas of England by means of secondary legislation.

These metro-mayors are an innovation. They differ not only from ceremonial Lord Mayors, but also from the 16 local authority mayors elected under the provisions of the 2000 Local Government Act. The metro-mayors represent not single but combined authorities, and unlike local authority mayors, they enjoy powers devolved from central government.

They are in part a response to the English Question. The day after Scotland rejected independence in the 2014 referendum, Prime Minister, David Cameron, announcing new powers for the devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, declared, `It is also important we have wider civic engagement about how to improve governance in our United Kingdom, including how to empower our great cities’.

The metro-mayors differ also from the mayor of London in that they enjoy more extensive statutory powers and they are not subject to scrutiny by a directly elected assembly as with the Greater London Assembly. The exercise of their powers is, however, subject to scrutiny by overview and scrutiny committees, consisting of backbench councillors from the constituent authorities. The metro-mayors are required to work with a Cabinet, which they chair, comprising the leaders of the combined authorities, and they cannot alter the personnel of the Cabinet without their consent.

The metro-mayors represent around 6.7 million people; and, if one includes the London mayoralty and the local authority mayors, around one-third of the population of England now live under mayoral regimes.

The metro-mayors are the product of devolution deals between the combined authorities and the government, negotiated separately on a bilateral basis with each combined authority. The powers of combined authorities are derived not from local but from central government.

Each deal yields its own set of statutory powers, which differ from area to area. Some powers rest with the mayor, others with the combined authority as a whole. While there is no single model, the metro mayors are in general responsible for infrastructure issues crossing boundaries such as transport and strategic planning, while the combined authorities are responsible for public services to improve local skills and employment and to integrate health and social care – though there is to be no devolution of any functions relating to the core duties of the Secretary of State for Health, nor of health-related regulatory functions vested in national bodies.

Greater Manchester, which has the most generous deal, has powers over strategic planning, transport, adult skills and health and social care and has taken over the functions of the police commissioner. The combined authorities are funded through their constituent councils by a levy, but cannot raise additional resources. Metro-mayors, however, can make a precept on local council tax bills where there has been an order allowing them to do so. They may also increase business rates by 2p in the pound provided that the relevant Local Enterprise Partnership agrees.

But the most important power enjoyed by the new mayors is not on the statute book at all. For these mayors, like the mayor of London, will be regarded as spokespersons for their areas even over matters for which they have no statutory responsibility. With an electoral mandate behind them, a mayor can mobilise public opinion and speak for local electors in a way in which the traditional council leader could not.

The metro-mayors will provide a clear focus of accountability for voters, personalising local government and making it more exciting. That has certainly been the case since 2000 with the mayor of London, the first directly elected mayor in British history. He is responsible for no more than around 10 percent of public spending in London, and has no power to raise his own taxes. Yet he is regarded by most Londoners as their spokesman on a very wide range of policies, whether or not he is statutorily responsible for them. After the terrorist atrocity at Westminster in March, it was Sadiq Khan, the mayor, not the Home Secretary, who spoke for London; and while few people could name the leader of an old-style local authority, most Londoners know the name of their mayor.

There have been three mayors of London – Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan. Like the metro-mayors, they were chosen, not by party groups on a local authority, but in primary elections. They are beholden, therefore, not to a local party group, but to the voters. They could therefore help to break the hold of tribal politics on local government. Two of the three London mayors – Livingstone and Johnson – were political mavericks – indeed Livingstone first won election in 2000 as an independent against official Labour opposition.

All three mayors were and are national political figures who decided that the mayoralty offered them a greater opportunity for exerting political influence than remaining as back-bench MPs. Boris Johnson used the mayoralty as a springboard for national leadership in the Brexit campaign, and is now Foreign Secretary. Sadiq Khan was a minister under Gordon Brown and Shadow Justice Secretary under Ed Miliband. He could well be a future leader of the Labour Party, and would certainly be a more plausible and popular figure than the current incumbent.

Another possible future Labour leader is Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, the former Culture and Health Secretary. He defeated another MP, Ivan Lewis, and a former MP, Tony Lloyd, to win the nomination. In Liverpool, MP Steve Rotherham defeated MP Luciana Berger and the mayor of Liverpool city, Joe Anderson, to win the Labour nomination, while the West Midlands Labour nomination was won by former MP, Sion Simon.

One of the reasons why local government has been so little valued in Britain and why it has been unable to resist the process of centralisation is that there has been so sharp a separation between local and national political roles, with the local role being seen as distinctly subordinate. The metro-mayors may well alter that perception.

Before the London mayoralty, only three politicians had been able to build national careers upon their record in local government – Joseph Chamberlain, the Radical mayor of Birmingham between 1873 and 1876, Herbert Morrison, first Labour leader of the London County Council between 1934 and 1940, and Ken Livingstone in an earlier incarnation as leader of the Greater London Council from 1981 until its abolition in 1986. But these three were very much exceptions to the general rule that central and local politics are in separate spheres. When Morrison stood for the Labour leadership in 1935, his critics argued that he was a local rather than a national political leader, and that is one of the reasons why he was defeated by Clement Attlee. Morrison’s leadership role in local government was seen as a handicap, not an advantage.

The sharp separation between central and local politics in Britain contrastssharp ly with politics on the Continent and in the United States where success at local or provincial level allows politicians to gain executive experience and provides a springboard for national political leadership. In the United States, presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Carter, Clinton and George W Bush were state governors before reaching the White House. In Germany, every Chancellor between Kiesinger in 1966 and Angela Merkel in 2006 had been the leader of a provincial government. In France, Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris before reaching the Elysee, while Nicolas Sarkozy had been President of the General Council of Hauts de Seine in Paris before becoming President.

In Britain, by contrast, of recent Prime Ministers, only John Major and Theresa May have executive experience as chair of a local housing committee and a local education authority respectively. Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Gordon Brown did not have this advantage. A senior civil servant, exasperated by Blair’s lack of understanding of management, once burst out at him `you have never managed anything’. `I have’, Blair replied, `I have managed the Labour Party’. But that, perhaps, is not quite the same thing as managing a government department or a local authority.

The metro-mayors, therefore, will give English city regions a voice which they have hitherto lacked, thereby helping to correct the imbalance between London and the rest of England, and acting as a counterweight to the devolved bodies in Scotland and Wales. They could also transform the relationship between central and local government by showing that a major contribution to British politics can be made from a local base. They may, therefore, yield greater prestige to a career in local government.

The metro-mayors might provide an alternative route for political leaders by making the control of territory the basis for political power. We may in future years see a new cadre of political leaders in Britain, leaders with real executive experience. All this might herald a real revolution both in local government and in our perception of it, leading to a new and more vibrant local democracy.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at King’s College, London

This article first appeared in Localis’s essay collection ‘Neo-localism: rediscovering the nation’