Local government minister Kris Hopkins has said he does not support the introduction of additional elected mayors, despite the chancellor insisting they are a prerequisite for devolution.
In an interview which took place at the LGC Summit last week, Mr Hopkins said he had “not been shy” about making it clear that he did not support the idea, adding that “another tier of government” would be a “waste of money”.
The Conservative minister said: “I honestly, genuinely think that if you asked the punter out there, would you like some more politicians and another mechanism in which politicians can make decisions or would you like … money being spent on looking after elderly people or putting more books in the libraries or keeping the pool open, I think they’d vote for the services.”
Mr Hopkins added that he had warned ministers ahead of the 2012 referendums on creating elected mayor models in 10 English cities that he “didn’t think people would support them”. In the event, only Bristol backed the model.
“In a democratic environment we asked people what they wanted to do, and I respect the fact they said, ‘no thanks’,” he said.
Mr Hopkins said he had not raised his objections directly with George Osborne, who said in a speech in June that he was prepared to consider “serious devolution of powers” to any city prepared to adopt the mayoral model.
However, he added: “If George and the Treasury team have an idea, I’m pragmatic.” He said he was a “listening minister” who would listen to the proposal.
Asked whether he thought more powers should be devolved to local government, Mr Hopkins said “huge powers” had already been handed down.
“Do you need to create another tier of government with all the cost associated with that, when actually if you want to get something going with a neighbouring council, picking the phone up is a good starting point. Arrange a meeting between your chief executive and theirs and see what the possibilities are.”
He said he did not support calls for more local tax-raising powers, because “when budgets in households are tight, the idea that you would tax people more is going to be quite a challenge for them”.
During the interview Mr Hopkins also said he was a “friend of local government”. He said comments by now Tory chair Grant Shapps, who likened councillors to scout leaders during a radio interview in 2012, were “derogatory”.
“From the social worker to the chief executive, I have a huge amount of respect for [local government] staff,” he said.
“As far as councillors are concerned, the vast majority got involved to do something good in their community. There isn’t a big cheerleading group for councillors, or a weekly pat on the back.
“There’s occasionally a note from someone when you’ve helped sort something out [for them], and that’s a huge reward.
“I’m a friend of local government and that includes councillors. I’m sure we’ll have disagreements and at times I may not seem like their friend, but I’m on their side.”
Asked about Mr Shapps’ comments, he said: “I just find those comments derogatory. I start from a position of respect for people who want to put their head above the parapet and do something for their community.”
During the interview Mr Hopkins also said his confidence in councils’ ability to improve health and care services under the better care fund was “high” because of authorities’ “extremely competent individuals [who] know their communities”.
He acknowledged that the first five approved better care fund plans expected to miss the government’s target of reducing emergency admissions by 3.5% in the first year.
“Some people say in the first year they’ll miss their target, but they’ll exceed it from the second year onwards,” he said.
“We set out, this is what we’d like to achieve, [but] different parts of the country with different demographics will create different outcomes.”