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Government suffers Lords blow on devolution bill

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The government has suffered a blow to its insistence on places adopting directly elected mayors in return for substantial devolution deals.

A Labour-led amendment to the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill was passed following a heated debate in the House of Lords yesterday.

The amendment, moved by Labour’s local government lead Lord McKenzie of Luton, said that an order for a directly elected mayor should “not be used as a condition for agreeing to the transfer of local authority or public authority functions”.

The Department for Communities & Local Government’s minister in the Lords, Baroness Williams of Trafford said the amendment was “directly at odds” with the government’s stance.

“We have this policy for good reasons,” she said. “We have it because where there is devolution of the ambition and scale as in Greater Manchester, there needs to be a clear, single point of accountability. People need to know who is responsible for the major decisions in their area—decisions which will affect their daily lives.”

She said combined authorities could win lesser powers than those agreed with Greater Manchester without having an elected mayor and warned voting in favour of the amendment would “frustrate” the Conservative manifesto commitment to implement Greater Manchester’s devolution deals. She added it would “obstruct our policy of allowing major powers to be devolved to a city”.

Lord Heseltine, a special adviser to the government, called it a “wrecking” amendment.

However, 240 peers voted in favour of the amendment, beating 175 who opposed it.

Any amendments to the bill could still be overturned by MPs when it goes to the House of Commons for debate. While the Conservatives have a majority in the Commons, LGC reported last month that some senior Tories had voiced concerns about directly elected mayors.

Where elected mayors are introduced by areas, Baroness Williams was successful in getting an amendment through which stated terms of office will be four years.

A government amendemnt allowing precepts on council tax bills to be split into two when combined authorities with a mayor take on the functions of police and crime commissioners was also approved. This will allow the communities secretary to apply different referendum principles to the separate components.

Baroness Williams also succesfully moved an amendment which she said would “provide assurance that any future devolution arrangements will continue to uphold existing accountabilities and national standards for the NHS”. The amendment will allow limitations to be attached to the transfer of powers from a public authority to a combined authority.

She said: “This could, for example, enable a conferral of health powers on a combined authority to be accompanied by a condition that the combined authority must also meet the current statutory duties held variously by the secretary of state for health, NHS England and clinical commissioning groups, thereby ensuring continuation of current NHS accountabilities and standards.”

Meanwhile, Labour was also successful in moving an amendment which will require the communities secretary to present at an annual report about devolution to members of the House of Commons.

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