Devolution has ground to a halt. Our government has been too preoccupied with fantasy trade deals to consider renegotiating the centre’s relationship with the sub-national.
It remains to be seen whether our new housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire gives devolution the kiss of life. At present there are no indications the devolution framework promised in the Conservative election manifesto will be published by the summer, as had been expected. While it is reasonable for Mr Brokenshire to understand the lie of the land before recommending paths to greater empowerment of both urban and shire areas, the delay inevitably adds to the sense of drift.
Mr Brokenshire will be an integral figure if our existing combined authority mayors are to be strengthened and the mayoral model, currently at a crossroads, is further rolled out. The enthusiasm of Yorkshire’s councils for pan-county devolution upsets the ministerial devo applecart which hitherto assumed mayors must oversee a ‘functioning economic geography’ rather than a popularly understood entity with a history. Meanwhile, the success of Greater Manchester CA’s Andy Burnham (Lab) and Liverpool City Region CA’s Steve Rotheram (Lab) at pinning culpability for the Northern Rail fiasco firmly at the door of transport secretary Chris Grayling may intensify ministerial doubts of the wisdom of creating strong, assertive mayors.
Mayors need to demonstrate that they are balancing ambition for place with an ability to operate with councils
Former chancellor George Osborne, a political schemer if ever there was one, was the primary architect of the mayoral model. He rightly envisaged mayors as being a means of breaking Labour’s political stranglehold over the north of England and industrial Midlands. Andy Street became mayor of West Midlands CA and, even more improbably, his fellow Tory Ben Houchen won in Tees Valley CA. However, last year’s Tory glory may now be less at the forefront of the collective ministerial mind than the creation of a platform which is being used more successfully to lambast Whitehall failure than the Opposition frontbench of the Commons.
It is not just Labour mayors feeling the heat. Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA mayor James Palmer (Con) is at loggerheads with council leaders over the future of the Cambridge City Deal. The mayor, who has been accused of a “power grab”, last week earned a rebuke from Mr Brokenshire who urged him “to take every possible effort to ensure that momentum is not lost”.
We are entering a crucial period in the tenure of metro mayors in which the outcome of disputes such as that in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough could determine the fate of the entire governance model. The onus is on all parties – including mayors, ministers and council leaders – to make a success of devolution. Mayors need to demonstrate that they are balancing ambition for place with an ability to cooperate with councils. And ministers should intervene only in the most intractable local disputes, resisting the temptation to clip the wings of strongly performing mayors of a different political colour. Only when the centre relinquishes its grip on skills, transport and local economies can the English regions fully assert themselves, building policies fully around their populations’ needs.