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Non-urban devo deals line up to dump mayors as May 'rethinks'

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Leaders in the four areas with the most recently agreed devolution deals would seek to scrap the elected mayor model if reports of a change in approach under Theresa May prove correct, LGC has been told.

Former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles told last month he expected a less “prescriptive” approach to mayors when devolution deals are negotiated. This was followed by a report in The Times which suggested the new prime minister and her new cabinet were less keen on elected mayors than her predecessors, in part for fear it would provide Labour moderates with an opportunity to rebuild.

Of the 10 mayoral devolution deals agreed to date, only Greater Manchester, Tees Valley and the Liverpool and Sheffield city regions have had legislation passed to allow mayoral elections to take place next May. In addition, the North East deal has collapsed with councils involved voting four-three against proceeding. Reluctance to accept an elected mayor and fears the region would not be better off as a result of a deal were behind the decision.

In a statement the Department for Communities & Local Government insisted the government’s approach had not changed. However, Ms May has not rebutted the claims and the suggestion has sparked undertainty across the sector.

Speaking to LGC, Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) called for rapid clarity so “everyone knows the landscape they are dealing with”.

The deals for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Norfolk & Suffolk, West of England and Greater Lincolnshire were announced by George Osborne at his last Budget as chancellor in March and are due to be legislated for later this year.

Norfolk and Suffolk have just finished consulting on the mayoral deal, despite four of Norfolk’s districts, including Norwich, opting out. Suffolk Leader Colin Noble (Con) told LGC: “Responses on having an elected mayor varied from hostile to apathetic. I would not say that anyone was enthusiastic.”

He said Suffolk’s public sector leaders’ board had worked with members electing a chair and hoped a combined authority could use a similar model.

Cambridge City Council leader Lewis Herbert (Lab) said consultation results on the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough deal were due this week.

“This deal could be done with or without a mayor but what we need is clarity from ministers on what they will accept,” he said.

Meanwhile, consultation on the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal showed 47% of respondents in favour of a mayor and 49% opposed; 59% supported devolution.

In a blog last week Lincolnshire CC leader Martin Hill (Con) said the important question was whether a non-mayoral devolution deal would still attract the same powers and responsibilities.

“There might be more scope under [Theresa May’s] new administration to get devolved powers without having a mayor,” he said.

“However, we need to know what that would mean for the deal we negotiated previously – would Greater Lincolnshire still get the same new funding and powers?”

North Kesteven DC leader Marion Brighton (Con) said a mayor had “not [previously] been a matter of choice” but she would “welcome further discussions with the new government on this”. The bid also includes unitaries North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire councils

Consultation on the West of England deal for Bristol City Council, South Gloucestershire Council and Bath & North East Somerset Council showed 55% support for a combined authority headed by an elected mayor. However, Bath & North East Somerset residents were narrowly opposed.

Leader Tim Warren (Con) said: “It was such a good deal that it was better to do it with a mayor than not do it all, but if there were a way to do this without a mayor I would be very pleased.”

North Somerset Council dropped out of the devolution bid in June in part over opposition to mayors but would likely seek to rejoin if the deal came without a mayor.

A DCLG spokeswoman said: “Devolution deals will continue in the usual way. Elected mayors remain the best way to make them work.”

Pickles sees less prescription

Former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles has suggested Theresa May’s government will take a less “prescriptive” approach to devolution with a relaxation of the requirement that elected mayors are required for major devolution deals to proceed.

In an LGC interview, Sir Eric said Ms May had long been “very much” in favour of devolution and suggested there could be a change of approach by the Treasury following George Osborne’s replacement as chancellor by Philip Hammond.

When asked whether he expected the momentum behind devolution to continue, he said: “It should move on, but maybe it is not going to be quite as prescriptive as it was within the Treasury.” Asked whether the change of approach would relate to the previous administration’s insistence on elected mayors, Sir Eric said: “Elected mayors are a great idea but they are not going to work in every part of the country.”

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