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Why two-tier areas should avoid jubilation about ministers' mayoral U-turn

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Commentary on the government’s non-urban mayors U-turn

The past week has seen evidence emerge of a U-turn which illustrates how the government may no longer be willing to shoot itself – or at least its foot soldiers – in the foot.

Ministers’ insistence, until recently, that shire areas seeking devolution should adopt directly elected mayors was hardly a crowd pleaser among their own troops.

Indeed LGC is struggling to recall meeting any councillor, of any political colour, from any two-tier area who regarded an elected mayor as anything other than an alien imposition to their political culture.

But the vast majority of these councillors are Conservatives and most of them have felt betrayed. Surely, they have argued, directly elected mayors were designed by George Osborne et al as a means of bypassing the predominantly Labour establishment of metropolitan areas (a means which proved successful, with Conservatives winning four of the six mayoral contests in May), not a means of cutting out from power the local politicians who have done the most to bring about Conservative governments?

County councillors have been particularly aggrieved, believing their organisations already offered the geographical scale necessary for the devolution of powers. Combined authorities would give no greater weight to counties than districts, giving excessive power to the relatively “parochial” district councillors, many county members have argued to LGC.

But, ministers such as Greg Clark, communities secretary for a year until summer 2016, insisted any significant devolution of power had to go hand in hand with increased accountability. And elected mayors were the only way of bringing this about. So Greater Manchester and indeed the West of England, for instance, were devolved big powers because they had mayors; West Yorkshire and Cornwall got weaker devolution deals than they otherwise would have done because they didn’t.

Thus areas including Lincolnshire, Hampshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire (all with their unitary siblings), and Norfolk and Suffolk were engulfed by almighty rows about whether mayors were a price worth paying for extra power or money. In the end – the answer from backbenchers was a clear ‘no’.

Of those areas getting the extra power that goes with mayoral deals, only Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA has a two-tier element. Elsewhere, all those wrangles were for nothing. No further mayors were agreed; inertia took over.

But the government is now changing course.

It had long been rumoured that Theresa May was no fan of elected mayors but it took until her ill-fated election manifesto for a policy change to emerge. The document restricted any additional mayors to combined authorities “based around our great cities”. No definition was given of what constitutes a great city.

The past week has given us more clarity of the new policy relating to devolution in non-urban areas.

Councils in Devon and Somerset were told by local government minister Jake Berry that they no longer needed a mayor to get a deal. Then it emerged that the same was true of councils in Lancashire.

So the government has turned out to be a listening government after all. On this issue anyway.

However, councillors should not get cock-a-hoop yet. Details of what powers ministers are willing to devolve are scant. The menace of mayors may have gone but it is far from clear that councils are to be devolved any game-changing responsibilities.

It also must be borne in mind that the six new combined authority mayors have relatively little hard power. However, it is already clear the mayors possess convening power and recognition which goes way beyond that in most cases envisaged by the leaders of their constituent councils who tried so hard to draw up systems that restricted the mayor’s power.

It is unclear how much impact a county and district leaders could have on a trade mission, for instance; their bargaining power with developers or an acute hospital is surely far lower. And it is clear that it is harder for a group of leaders, none directly elected, to exert influence to bring about far-reaching public service reforms.

It may well be the case that county and district councillors have won a battle but go on to lose the war. If the governance status quo has been preserved, it now has to prove it can lead on radical change.

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