For most people, the structure of local government is as dull as ditch water but as readers of this journal know, it makes a real difference to people’s lives. The proposed reforms are intended to devolve powers from the centre to cities and regions. There are some positive features to the bill and there is a great prize if we can get it right. If it is genuine devolution of power, exercised with the consent of the people, who could argue that it isn’t a good thing? Health and social care should be properly integrated and I welcome the fact that Manchester is leading the country on this. At the moment it’s proposed that a mayor would oversee policies such as transport, planning, social care, housing and police; controlling billions of pounds of public money. I welcome a shift to local decision making, but these are far reaching and potentially irrevocable changes; before signing up to this, we need some vital guarantees. First, an elected mayor should not be imposed from above; in Manchester we are being told that devolution has strings attached - an elected mayor, with no elected body to keep him or her in check is a precondition for greater local control. A mayor might be right for some areas and not for others. The government has conceded this, they’re not insisting on a mayor for Cornwall or Yorkshire, yet in Manchester apparently, it’s compulsory. When people were last given a say, Salford was in favour, Bury and Manchester rejected the idea. A local referendum on the question of introducing a mayor is essential. If the vote was in favour, it would give him or her legitimacy and authority; if people are not signed up to the idea, a new mayor might have a bumpy ride.
Furthermore if the package of devolution and an elected mayor is such a good one then why do ministers not have the self-confidence to put their argument to the voters? Secondly, is power being passed down, or is power being transferred up? We have some excellent, hard-working local representatives who should be entrusted with more power, but I would be very concerned if the end result took power away from councils. The bill is said to be all about devolving power but still allows local government to cede power to a mayor and this could be done by a council which barely has control of the authority. There should surely be some sort of protection written into the legislation against powers being transferred upwards and away from the people; perhaps there should be a ‘cooling off period’ requiring at least one local election to take place before powers are transferred. Thirdly, what arrangements are in place, to make sure
central government keeps its side of the deal? At the moment, government is keen to hold local authorities to their undertakings, but less keen to make binding commitments itself. Finally, there should be an exit strategy; if the relationship suffers irretrievable break down; how do you unpick the arrangement – what provision is there for a ‘conscious uncoupling’ and what guarantee is there that a local authority could walk away without penalty? No doubt it would be messy and difficult for a local authority to leave, so it is hardly likely to be done lightly. The freedom to secede from an arrangement that isn’t working for any one area would, though be the ultimate protection from abuse. The Chancellor said this is a massive moment for the North of England’. Possibly, but there is a real concern that this will be a significant concentration of power in the hands of one person and with a serious danger of ‘mission creep.’ I am sure the bill is well-intentioned, but I am concerned at the imposition without a referendum of a powerful mayor, superimposed on top of the existing structures of government, a new model for local government from which there is no escape and no redress. Crucially, if it’s such a good idea then the government should have the confidence to put it to the people. So far, ministers have been willing to engage in constructive discussions, if these widely held concerns can be addressed as the bill progresses, we will have a bright future of accountable local government that is closer to the people that it serves.