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Northern cities indicate willingness to reconsider elected mayors

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The West Yorkshire Combined Authority is to consult the public on introducing an elected mayor following today’s announcement that chancellor George Osborne “will not settle for anything less” in return for increased devolution.

Voters in Bradford and Wakefield rejected the introduction of elected mayors in 2012 and Kirklees in 2001 and the combined authority had previously insisted it was not the right governance model.

However, in a statement released this lunchtime, chair Peter Box (Lab) said the combined authority would reconsider in light of the chancellor’s comments and seek the public’s views.

In a speech this afternoon, Mr Osborne was due to confirm that a devolution bill would feature in the first Queen’s speech but that powers over, transport, housing, skills and healthcare will only be available if city regions adopt a so-called “metro-mayor” .

Cllr Box said: “With 95% of decisions that affect our citizens being taken outside our local areas, the case for devolution is unarguable.

“We are confident that by securing a comprehensive devolution deal, we can do better than Whitehall, growing our economy and addressing the issues of productivity facing the UK economy. The chancellor has now made clear that greater levels of devolution in England are directly linked to a change in governance.

“We were clear in the last parliament that in the light of people having strongly rejected elected mayors in recent referenda in Bradford, Kirklees and Wakefield, we did not believe this was the model for West Yorkshire and York.

“However, the chancellor has now made his position clear and we need to consult the local people, businesses and stakeholders of West Yorkshire and York on the governance options that could unlock extra powers and resources from Whitehall. We will be asking government to let us have details of what extra powers and resources could be made available to us in return for a change of governance.”

Key figures on the Liverpool City Region, North East and Sheffield City Region also told LGC they were willing to look at adopting the directly elected mayor model in the wake of Mr Osborne’s statement today. 

In  March, LGC revealed a willingness from the chairs of the Liverpool and Sheffield city region combined authorities to adopt the mayoral model but the rhetoric today was strengthened from members on those. Key figures in the north-east and West Yorkshire have previously taken a very firm stance against the proposal.

West Yorkshire

Keith Wakefield, outgoing leader of Leeds City Council and member of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority said: “This is about whether we can get the resources and freedoms that will benefit the economy. If that means we have to revisit the debate of metro mayors then we should do.” He said any mayor would have to have the support of the people of Yorkshire and he was “pretty confident they want devolution”.

The devolution deal for West Yorkshire unveiled in March contained significantly fewer powers and controls than what was negotiated in Greater Manchester as a direct result of the combined authority refusing to adopt the elected mayor model.

Cllr Wakefield said while he did not like elected mayors, he thought what had been negotiated in Greater Manchester, where the mayor is essentially the leader of a cabinet in all but name, was “not a bad model”. He said with more cuts to local government on the horizon it was about “survival of public services”.

Sheffield City Region

Sheffield voted against having an elected mayor in 2012. John Mothersole, chief executive of the city’s council, which is a member of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority, told LGC that it was “misconception” that an elected mayor had been rejected by members when they negotiated a devolution deal before Christmas. Again, that deal contained fewer powers than Greater Manchester’s. Talking to LGC, Mr Mothersole said the proposal the city region put forward meant the discussion of an elected mayor never came up. He said: “We are open-minded [on adopting an elected mayor]. Nothing is ruled out, nothing is ruled in.”

He said they always intended to go back to the government to ask for more powers. Asked when the combined authority would do that, Mr Mothersole said: “We aren’t going to hang around. There’s both a need for this and a momentum to this and we have to respond to that.”

North East

Three years ago, voters in Newcastle rejected the introduction of an elected mayor. Speaking to LGC today, Nick Forbes (Lab), leader of Newcastle City Council and transport lead for the North East Combined Authority said: “We have made it clear in the North East we are open to exploring a range of options. The Greater Manchester model is one I know we will look at and explore whether it would be right for us.”

That is a significant change in tone from June 2014, when Cllr Forbes said elected mayors were a “smokescreen” and an “Alice in Wonderland way of going about politics”.

Cllr Forbes said it remained to be seen exactly what powers and controls the government would be “prepared to put on the table” for the North East and highlighted “significant concerns” about how the elected mayor model would work in such a diverse area of cities, towns and villages. Cllr Forbes said there was “a real danger” elected mayors could end up being like police and crime commissioners which have proved unpopular.

Liverpool City Region

Joe Anderson (Lab), mayor of Liverpool, said he was “going to try and persuade” members on the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority to adopt the elected mayor model. He said: “I am hopeful they will recognise that we have got a Conservative government committed to doing that which is in power for five years and work with that.”

In February, Phil Davies (Lab), chair of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and leader of Wirral MBC, said if the imposition of an elected mayor was “the only game in town” he thought the question should be put “to the people”.

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