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Modest precept plans show importance of mayors' soft power

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Commentary on mayoral precepts

Local government isn’t used to much in the way of freedom, especially when it comes to setting council tax bills.

So when Sajid Javid gave combined authority mayors the ability to set whatever council tax precept they saw fit, one might speculate that some of them almost didn’t know what to do.

Even Mr Javid’s financial liberation of one corner of local government came with a slightly fatherly “you won’t be allowed another house party if you let your yobbo mates turn up and smash up the living room” type of tone. In his local government finance settlement speech before Christmas the communities secretary (his job title had yet to change) said: “I’m sure voters will be watching closely to ensure this freedom is not abused – as I will.

With the exception of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA’s James Palmer (Con) all eligible combined authority mayors have now announced their precept plans (West of England CA’s Tim Bowles (Con) is barred by legislation from levying a precept).

Current evidence might lead commentators to conclude some of the mayors are opting for a low-key party, perhaps in the hope Dad will be sufficiently impressed with their maturity to lend them the car keys if they continue to be good.

Only Greater Manchester CA’s Andy Burnham (Lab) and West Midlands CA’s Andy Street (Con) have so far announced plans to charge a precept. These would respectively amount to £9 and £10 a year per band D property. In addition to his mayoral precept Mr Burnham uniquely also holds police and crime commissioner powers in his city and will levy an additional rise of £12 for that. Tees Valley CA’s Ben Houchen and Liverpool City Region CA’s Steve Rotheram plan no precept.

However, Mr Street could be thwarted by his predominantly Labour cabinet members who voted to indicate they were opposed to his plans. To what extent this is merely political posturing remains unclear.

The two mayors planning precepts were keen to justify their decisions.

“The government’s decision to cut Greater Manchester Police for the eighth year in a row, when the threat level remains high and crime is rising, means we have been left in a difficult position with no real choice but to ask our residents to fill the gap,” said Mr Burnham.

His West Midlands counterpart said his office had already demonstrated its value by showing the “region punches above its weight with government”, while the precept would help work to tackle homelessness and “be vital in ensuring we can continue our region’s economic recovery”.

In an article for ConservativeHome.com, Mr Houchen explained his grounds for not levying a precept. Indeed, he went as far as to praise the “right-minded” West Country councils for their “foresight” in refusing to give the West of England mayor tax-raising powers.

Mr Houchen wrote: “I didn’t stand for election to increase taxes – that’s not why I’m here. Our local Labour councils already charge an arm and a leg, and I will never add to that burden for as long as I’m fortunate to represent the area I grew up in and love.”

He noted local scepticism about the value of his office to state that “to ask local people to fork out even more would not just go against Conservative philosophy, it could threaten the existence of the metro mayor model itself”.

Metro mayors are caught in a bind. They need resources to play with. They also need to convince a sceptical electorate and wary government that they can be trusted. With trust could potentially come more powers.

It was perhaps inevitable that it was Greater Manchester, with both long-standing cooperation between councils and Labour domination, and the West Midlands, whose mayor is the current local star of the Tory party, that felt they could get away with precepts. Mr Burnham has local political capital and Mr Street has the faith of the government.

The fact that house prices in the Tees Valley and Liverpool City Region are low place precepts firmly in the ‘not worth the effort’ category (as well as being a typical indication of the unfairness of local government finance). Why bother to antagonise your local electorate for little benefit?

However, as Liverpool City Region warned today, it remains to be seen if combined authorities are sustainable. “Unless government policy shifts significantly, the burden of funding the mayoral CA will continue to be felt locally,” a CA report stated.

Mayoral caution on precepts is further indication (if ever it was needed) that George Osborne and Greg Clark have not sanctioned the creation of a series of regional Greater London Councils. The new mayors will for the most part rely on regional convening power to make an impact.

The Mayor of London role shows the potential to be influential on relatively modest budgets. However, Sadiq Khan (Lab) proposed a band D precept of £218 for 2018-19. The new combined authority mayors have a long, long way to go to match his level of resources, even assuming they feel minded to incrementally seek budget increases.

Soft power and relationships, not money, will be key to combined authority mayor success for the foreseeable future.

Nick Golding, editor

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