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If ministers want us to vote for mayors, why make it so hard?

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Even allowing for all the undecideds and the “ooh-I’ve-not-heard-anything-about-its”, opinion polls suggest that several, perhaps even most, of the ten referendums on 3 May could produce Yes majorities for elected mayors. None suggests, though, that there isn’t everything still to play for. So why are government ministers, who support this potentially momentous change, making life so difficult for Yes campaigners?

Two issues come up at every mayoral meeting: ‘What additional ‘hard’ powers would a mayor in my city have?’ and ‘How do we kick out a deadbeat?’ With the localism Act offering little help, and ministers even less, here are my suggestions of some at least partial answers.

Powers were intended to be easy. In the original Bill, undefined additional powers - transferred ‘local public service functions’ - would go to mayoral authorities only. They were the bribe to get us to vote for the mayors that only false consciousness had prevented us realising we really wanted all along.

But the Lords crucially amended this bit of the Bill, enabling functions to be transferred to any ‘permitted authority’, provided the transfer “would promote economic development … or increase local accountability”. The mayoral bribe had gone, replaced only by a thinly disguised code.

December’s Cabinet Office prospectus, Unlocking Growth in Cities, stated that cities wanting significant new powers must “demonstrate strong, visible and accountable leadership and effective decision-making structures” - universally interpreted as government-speak for having an elected mayor.

It sounds encouragingly localist - until you realise the Catch-22

This document launched the government’s policy of ‘City Deals’ - bespoke packages of new powers, projects and funding sources, negotiated with the leaders of individual cities, in exchange for an agreement to work with the Government, the private sector and other agencies to unlock these cities’ “full growth potential”.

It sounds encouragingly localist - until you realise the Catch-22. Ministers want to negotiate individual city deals with elected mayors; they can’t say what any specific deal will comprise without knowing who they’ll be negotiating with; but voters, unless they know the likely content of their deal, are much less likely to opt for mayors.

Though inconvenient, this logic might just be acceptable, had ministers themselves not completely ignored it in publicising early deals with one city still to elect a mayor and another outspokenly opposed to the whole idea.

City Deals

There is still time for them to reveal some details of the discussions already held with other referendum cities, but it now seems unlikely. Yes campaigners, therefore, must make the most of the Liverpool and Greater Manchester deals that we do know about - not, as it turns out, too unpromising a task.

Liverpool’s city deal was announced on 7 February - the same day as the Labour council, bypassing its electorate, took the decision itself to have an elected mayor who, once elected on 3 May, would lead its implementation.

All involved insisted, however, that the deal was not dependent on the city having a mayor - which means that any city whose electors have actually voted for a mayor will surely expect to negotiate a deal worth proportionately at least as much as Liverpool’s.

Liverpool Council’s website headlines the deal’s additional economic development money as initially £130m - “including £75m of new money from government” - with the potential to grow to between £500m and £1bn.

Other goodies include an Environmental Technology Zone, with the resulting growth in business rate income going to the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and five Mayoral Development Zones; a Mayoral Investment Board to oversee the city’s economic and housing strategy; and a Secondary school Investment Plan to build 12 new secondary schools.

Sceptics will, entirely reasonably, note the big questions barely even addressed. How much of all of this is genuinely new money? How much of this city deal has to be shared with the city-region LEP? What discretion will the Mayor have to do things that Ministers don’t like?

However, even to Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool FC, £500m-plus is hardly loose change. Moreover, most of what relatively little criticism there has been of the package came, significantly, only after the announcement of Greater Manchester’s deal, whose ‘earn back’ tax provision - the first allowing local government to take directly a slice of national taxes - was rightly seen as genuinely ground-breaking.

Importantly, Manchester’s is not a deal with the City Council, but with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) - the strategic authority for all ten Manchester boroughs, whose statutory city region status is clearly accepted by Ministers as having at least the strength and accountability of a city mayor.

Under the deal the GMCA will invest £1.2bn in infrastructure to promote economic growth, and - the headline bit - will be able to earn back up to £30m of the extra tax revenues generated from this growth to reinvest in a revolving infrastructure fund, in which the money is returned on a payment-by-results basis.

The whole deal aims to create and protect a total of over 6,000 jobs, with other provisions including devolution of the Northern Rail franchise, 6,000 more apprenticeships, a low carbon hub, and up to 7,000 new homes.

Its total potential impact on the city and regional economy is huge, and, exceptional as the GMCA may be, this publicised deal has to be seen as a massive precedent, and, surely, a major addition to the Yes campaigners’ armoury.

Recall mechanism

Removal of mayors should also have been settled by now. In its Impact Assessment in January 2011, the government asserted that, if mayors were going to exercise additional powers and freedoms, the accountability regime should include a recall mechanism - to be introduced “at a later date … having considered the issue alongside proposals for recall for other public officials.”

It would have been useful had ministers reminded voters of this pledge and given some vague hint of when the “later date” might arrive. Still, it remains government policy, and the answer, therefore, to the question: “If we’re going to directly elect a mayor, how can we directly unelect a rubbish one?” is that, by the time the possibility arises, some recall mechanism should, as promised, be in place.

But what kind of mechanism? The Warwick Commission Report on Elected Mayors seems to suggest that “an appropriate recall process”, enabling the removal of a mayor “in extremis”, might be one exercised through a no confidence vote by the full council. Which is not dissimilar to the government’s current attempt to introduce a recall mechanism for MPs, controlled by other MPs, rather than by voters - and rapidly unravelling as a consequence, which probably explains why ministers are keeping so stum about recall for mayors.

In what is supposed to be a major extension of direct democracy, “an appropriate recall process” would seem logically to be one in which voters are the key players. A set percentage of a disgruntled electorate sign a petition, and thereby trigger a recall vote in which those same electors are asked if they want their mayor to be recalled, with a Yes vote triggering in turn a by-election.

Finally, there is the in extremis issue. The Recall of Elected Representatives Bill - the one introduced, regrettably, not by the government, but by Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith - proposes that recall should kick into action not in extremis, but in any circumstances in which representatives lose the confidence of their electorate: if, say, they’ve acted financially dishonestly or disreputably, or broken promises made in an election address, or behaved in a way likely to bring their office into disrepute.

It might not be quite what ministers have in mind, but I bet it wouldn’t half boost the Yes vote on 3 May and maybe even the turnout.

Chris Game, visiting lecturer, Institute of Local Government, University of Birmingham

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