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May must end mayor confusion

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It is often said that a new prime minister needs to make their mark in their first 100 days. Theresa May is little more than halfway towards reaching this milestone but, on local government policy at least, there is so far little indication of any bold new era beginning.

Should the 100-day landmark be taken seriously, Ms May could be considered undermined by the misfortune of entering Number 10 just as Whitehall wound down for the summer. However, a prime minister who so enthusiastically endorsed Birmingham’s great reformer Joseph Chamberlain in her (brief) leadership election campaign has since made few discernible positive noises about devolution or the status of local government in the post-Brexit era.

She also won power at a time of devolutionary fervour unimaginable to those who have followed local government through its stale decades of retrenchment. (Although she also becomes prime minister at a time councils find themselves financially stretched like never before.) As is the case with her caution about Chinese involvement in the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, Ms May appears gives the impression of being a leader who likes to weigh up arguments before taking a decision. She may prefer to see evidence that devolution works rather than proceed at the pace endorsed by George Osborne, who she sacked from the Cabinet.

Theresa May and Sajid Javid need to move soon to clarify the government’s position on mayors

However, local government has been marched to the top of the devolutionary hill. Councils of many areas have agreed to install elected mayors on the understanding that this was the only real means available of gaining greater control of growing their local economies and, probably, redesigning local public services. Councils have done this to a tight timescale imposed by ministers.

Former communities secretary Eric Pickles exclusively revealed to LGCplus that he expected the government to tone down its enthusiasm for mayors. He is not alone in thinking this: a series of council leaders have indicated they are uncertain how they should proceed with deals agreed with the old regime now circumstances may have changed. In addition to the four largely non-urban areas that were the last deals to be agreed by Osborne, some predominantly Labour metropolitan areas could feel sold down the river by agreeing to a mayor, a provision which is not being forced on the predominantly Conservative latecomers.

In all areas, city region mayor will become a less attractive role without the goodwill of a government genuinely enthusiastic about devolving power down to a local leader. The chatter suggests Ms May is no fan of mayors but there is no clarity whether this is the case as consultation deadlines and indeed next year’s mayoral polls loom ever larger.

Her honeymoon may not be over, but Theresa May and communities secretary Sajid Javid need to move soon to clarify the government’s position on mayors. Without certainty devolutionary momentum will be lost, as will an opportunity to empower the areas and people whose discontent was revealed so clearly in the EU referendum.

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