A commentary on the latest devolution developments
Today’s shrinking planning bill: Reduced bill seeks to speed up neighbourhood plans
Today’s business rates dispute: Shires caution over ‘unfair’ business rates pilots
Today’s merging districts: Smallest district backs merger plan
Try to impose anything on unwilling recipients and the chances are they will seek to avoid it.
So it goes with proposals for combined authorities led by elected mayors.
Elections for those in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands are going ahead next May, though in the latter Labour’s candidate Sion Simon is already complaining that his powers would be insufficient.
But elsewhere, the North East has this week rejected the devolution deal offered, while consultations on four of the most recently announced devolution deals completed this week found the public also had mixed feelings about mayors.
Councils had seen mayors as a necessary evil of devolution; given the previous chancellor George Osborne’s enthusiasm for them.
His departure, and signals that the government might relax this requirement – as former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles’ indicated to LGC – have encouraged those who think it absurd to have one person ruling such vast areas as the entire North East or half of East Anglia.
Even mayoral cheerleader the Centre for Cities thinktank has conceded that the collapse of the North East deal “shows that taking a pan-regional approach to mayoral devolution is inherently fraught with difficulties”.
The main issue cited by dissident North East council leaders was the lack of a government guarantee to replace funding provided by the European Union.
They feared that without this a combined authority could end up with devolved responsibilities that – post-Brexit – it would lack the resources to discharge and so become publicly reviled for any failings.
Gateshead MBC leader Martin Gannon (Lab) said the prospect of a regional mayor was now “very, very unlikely” but was willing to talk to ministers about other models that came with funding guarantees.
Results in the other four devolution consultations hardly showed brimming enthusiasm for mayors.
The concept gained 52% support in Norfolk and Suffolk, though the latter’s leader Colin Noble (Con) said attitudes towards a mayoralty “varied from hostile to apathetic”.
In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough a perplexing result showed 57% support for a mayor among residents contacted by pollster Ipsos Mori, but only 31% among those consulted online.
Cambridgeshire CC leader Steve Count (Con) noted “concerns and reservations some people have expressed about additional bureaucracy and an elected mayor”.
Residents of Lincolnshire CC and North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire councils voted 47-49% against a mayor.
Lincolnshire leader Martin Hill (Con) said government’s signals meant “there might be more scope to get devolved powers without having a mayor”; though he pointedly wondered “would Greater Lincolnshire still get the same new funding and powers?”
In the West of England, Bristol residents backed a mayor as, more narrowly, did those in South Gloucestershire.
But North Somerset Council has refused to join this devolution bid in part because of the mayor issue, and responses in Bath & North East Somerset were narrowly opposed.
Leader Tim Warren (Con) said: “It was such a good [devolution] deal that it was better to do it with a mayor than not do it all, but if there were a way to do this without a mayor I would be very pleased.”
His remarks rather sum up attitudes towards combined authority mayors – something councils would grudgingly accept, but which they would be greatly relieved not to have.