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Revealed: regional powerhouses moot mayors in quest for power

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LGC can reveal new evidence of how England’s biggest cities are preparing to shake up their governance, including through the possible introduction of elected mayors, in bids for power following the Scottish independence referendum.

Eight cities have told LGC of their plans for how they may strengthen their leaderships in return for devolved power, after the prime minister said in the wake of Scotland’s ‘no’ vote that he wanted to “empower our great cities”.

Responsibilities widely demanded include: devolution of skills funding and control of the Work Programme; control of transport funding; greater powers to stimulate housebuilding; local tax-raising powers, including an end to the referendum trigger for council tax increases and local retention of a greater share of business rates growth.

Proposals include:

  • Bristol City Council’s call for greater powers for the three boards chaired by its elected mayor George Ferguson (Ind). These cover health commissioning, property assets and skills funding and further education. It argues Mr Ferguson’s presence on these boards means they are ready to take on devolved powers.
  • Sunderland City Council and Sheffield City Council’s proposed “total place” approach under which control of all public spending is devolved locally.
  • Newcastle City Council’s call for the devolution of growth, skills and transport powers to the North East Combined Authority.
  • A call from Liverpool City Council mayor Joe Anderson (Lab) for greater control of skills, training, education, housing and planning, and bus regulation.

Splash

 

The 10 leaders of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority will meet in Rochdale on Friday to discuss options for stronger leadership that would be adopted in return for a transfer of powers and funding from Whitehall. A combined authority-commissioned report by thinktank ResPublica, published last week, called for the devolution of public spending worth £22bn.

LGC understands Greater Manchester’s options include a directly elected mayor; a new combined authority leader chosen by the 10 leaders; a version of the current model that hands more autonomy to the combined authority’s chair; and a system in which each leader has executive powers over a particular portfolio across the city region. Sources indicate a decision on which of these to adopt could be taken by Christmas.

The debate on governance comes as senior figures at northern authorities anticipate chancellor George Osborne will use his autumn statement to commit the government to the £15bn “One North” transport proposals, which would see major improvements to road and rail connections. A senior figure said they expected this commitment to be a “heavily sugared pill” to force councils to adopt the elected mayoral model.

Meanwhile, Birmingham City Council is putting forward a proposal to make the city financially independent of the government within five years. Chief executive Mark Rogers told LGC he wanted to see financial independence through tax-raising powers and the local retention of a greater share of business rates growth, coupled with the devolution of transport and skills funding.

The council is proposing that these powers could be overseen by a strengthened version of a “supervisory board”, composed of the leaders of the nine councils represented on the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, which already takes decisions on spending local growth funds.

“We want to understand from the government how much stronger the supervisory board would need to be … if at all,” Mr Rogers said. Under this system, he said, LEP areas would need to “woo their neighbours” to handle some devolved powers at a subregional level.

Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council, said: “I think there’s never been a better opportunity to make the case for devolution and we’re doing so.”

Devolution of transport, growth, jobs, housing and skills could “take the Leeds city region from being a net taker of taxpayers’ money to a net contributor within six years,” he said.

In return for these changes he would be willing to consult residents about “whether we need to provide more accountability for the new powers on offer”.

Changes could include a cabinet or federal cabinet approach within the combined authority, or a “leader of leaders” on the combined authority, he said. Asked whether the area would consider an elected mayor, he said the choice would be for politicians but it would be difficult to galvanise support because the model had been rejected by voters in Bradford, Wakefield and Leeds.

His comments were echoed by Sheffield City Council chief executive John Mothersole, who said there was a “chance of rapid progress” on devolution in the wake of the referendum, adding that he wanted a commitment to a “proper place-based budget for Sheffield and its city region”. He said the debate on governance was “still to be had”.

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes (Lab) said the powers he was demanding “could easily be devolved to the combined authority”, adding that it “would be entirely wrong for government to withhold powers because the people decided they didn’t like the idea of an elected mayor”.

Sunderland City Council leader Paul Watson (Lab) said an elected mayor was “not out of the question”.

Senior figures at two cities told LGC a “metro mayor” model would be more likely to gain acceptance among local politicians than a city mayor model, if this meant the mayor would have strategic powers covering a smaller range of issues than those of a city mayor.

 

 

 

 

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