On 5th November 2004, the result of the referendum on the introduction of a regional assembly for the north east was announced: 77.93 per cent against. With that resounding defeat, the New Labour project to ensure symmetric devolution in the UK was dead. The introduction of regional assemblies for the non-London regions of England had been the final piece of the jigsaw to introduce regional governance in every part of the UK, and it had been roundly rejected.
It’s easy to see why reform was thought necessary: by the early 2000s, Britain had been left with a hodge-podge of sub-Westminster government. The local government re-organisation of 1974 resulted in a mix of two-tier district and county authorities, with the metropolitan counties abolished in 1986 and replaced by metropolitan districts with joint boards. Many areas became single-tier unitary authorities in the 1990s. Following this, in addition to the creation of the Scottish parliament, Welsh, Northern Irish and Greater London Assemblies, the first local authority directly elected mayoralties were introduced in 2002.
In practice, this meant a citizen in Wales might be represented by a single councillor on a unitary council and a Welsh assembly member, while a Lancashire resident might have a parish, district and county councillor, all of which hold differing responsibilities and powers. Regional assemblies, followed by a ‘tidy-up’ of local government, were supposed to solve the messy inequalities in UK local government. But with that referendum result, the creation of a ‘UK of the regions’ was put into abeyance.
Since then, regional government has gone out of vogue, and the new game in town is combined authorities, particularly when led by a directly elected mayor. The first area to adopt this model is Greater Manchester, with the sub-region’s police and crime commissioner, Tony Lloyd, appointed to act as interim mayor, with powers over planning, housing, police, transport, health, waste and potentially more. The UK’s urban areas are, outside of London, places with the greatest potential for economic growth – it is believed that having a single vision driving forward plans across metropolitan district boundaries is the best way to secure prosperity.
Not everyone is convinced by this. When the ‘Devo-Manc’ deal was announced by the chancellor in February 2015, critics were quick to point out that although powers were being devolved by government, they were not being backed up with devolved budgets. Cynics also suggested that this was simply an attempt to pass responsibility for unpopular cuts onto struggling local councils.
The other major criticism is less to do with the specifics of the deals, but the old debate over localised versus state-wide spending. There is a danger, if previously nationally-directed spending powers are devolved of a ‘postcode lottery’ of inequality, with residents of one region receiving better services than residents of a neighbouring region. Of course, local authorities being able to tailor their services for the particular needs of their residents is a key strength of the localism agenda, its proponents would argue.
Many have pointed out the similarities between these (largely metropolitan) combined authorities and the old metropolitan county councils. The difference is that under the leadership of a ‘super cabinet’ made up of local authority leaders, they are only indirectly accountable to the electorate. In contrast, those led by a directly elected mayor are democratically accountable once every four years.
What is needed, then, is a form of governance which is transparent and locally accountable, responsive to the particular needs of its residents, but which doesn’t leave a gaping chasm of inequality between authorities. It must also spur co-operation between neighbouring authorities rather than an unhealthy race to the bottom. Are city-region mayoralties the answer to that? There is probably no perfect solution which satisfies all of the above criteria, but in the current financial climate where cross-boundary shared services are becoming the norm, the ‘metro mayor’ is a potentially powerful focal point for driving renewal at a local level.
City-region mayoralties were agreed for a number of combined authorities in November 2015, including Liverpool City Region; the North East; South Yorkshire; West Midlands and Tees Valley. Since the introduction of a directly elected mayor in Liverpool in 2012, the international profile and levels of inward investment have increased substantially to the city. A high profile, influential city-region mayor should certainly boost this further.
The so-called ‘northern powerhouse’ has been vacuous at best up to this point, leaving northern authorities to think up innovative ways to ‘do it for themselves’. After the announcements in the chancellor’s autumn statement, it is clear that Liverpool will have lost over 60 per cent of its central government grant by 2017. Even without the devolved budgets we would welcome the new powers, but the chancellor must realise that now is the time to show there is more to his strategy for the north, and indeed everywhere outside London, than an empty slogan. Tinkering with governance arrangements isn’t enough – he must provide adequate funding to local councils if he wants to ensure the future prosperity of the UK.