Key figures on combined authorities based around major cities have indicated they are now open to adopting elected ‘metro mayors’ in return for greater powers after the chancellor said he would “not settle for anything less” than mayors in a speech last week.
However, uncertainty surrounds what chancellor George Osborne’s devolution offer means for mid-sized cities, while counties have voiced concerns about “two-speed” devolution.
Mr Osborne used his first speech since the general election to announce that a city devolution bill would be included in the Queen’s speech next Wednesday.
He said the legal framework would be in place by the end of the year “so that any city can proceed to implement a mayoral devolution deal”.
This would include powers and controls over transport, housing, skills, policing and health and social care.
Key Cities chair Paul Watson (Lab), who is also leader of Sunderland City Council, said the group’s 26 member cities were “waiting on tenterhooks” to see a copy of the bill and “get some clarification” about whether they would qualify for the wide-ranging devolution Mr Osborne outlined.
“That’s the vexed question and what we are trying to find out,” he said.
Combined authorities covering Derby and Derbyshire, and Nottingham and Nottinghamshire could potentially qualify for wide-ranging devolution deals due to the size of their cities.
Speaking in Manchester last week, Mr Osborne said instead of offering wide-ranging devolution to counties and towns he was giving them the chance to participate in an extension of the city deals programme.
While the city deals negotiated in the last parliament gave places some powers and control of funding, these commonly focused specifically on promoting economic growth and were subject to government-approved projects and targets. Devolution deals like that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority negotiated, however, are wider-ranging and contain more freedoms over how budgets are spent in return for adopting an elected mayor.
However, County Councils Network chair David Hodge (Con) and District Councils’ Network chair Neil Clarke (Con), said they “remain concerned” about the focus on city regions and warned a “two-speed approach” risked “creating a democratic deficit”.
Staffordshire CC leader Philip Atkins (Con) told LGC the government should not “condemn the shires to the slowest gear”. He said he would be making that case to communities secretary Greg Clark when they meet in the next fortnight.
John Pollard (Ind), leader of Cornwall Council which is in talks with the government about a potential devolution deal, said he believed their “opportunities have diminished” since the general election but he still wanted “devolved powers” rather than a form of city deal.
Following Mr Osborne’s announcement, West Yorkshire Combined Authority chair Peter Box (Lab) announced plans to consult local residents and businesses on adopting an elected mayor in return for more powers.
He had previously refused to entertain the idea as the proposal had been rejected in referendums in Bradford and Wakefield in 2012 and Kirklees in 2001.
Speaking to LGC, other combined authority leaders also suggested they would revisit the issue (see box).
However, Bill Dixon (Lab), vice chair of the Tees Valley Unlimited local enterprise partnership - a fledgling combined authority - and leader of Darlington BC told LGC he would adopt an elected mayor “over my political dead body”.