Town hall knows best
Labour should back directly elected mayors this May and press the government to devolve more powers to them
It is perhaps unsurprising that Ed Miliband does not appear an enthusiast for directly elected mayors. The first holder of the post in his Doncaster constituency, Martin Winter, was expelled from the Labour party and a motion of no confidence in him was overwhelmingly passed by the city council. Winter’s successor, Peter Davies of the English Democrats, tried to cut off funding for Doncaster gay pride, describes global warming as ‘a scam’, and has been disciplined for breaching the authority’s code of conduct.
But Doncaster’s mayors are more the symptom of a deep-seated dysfunctional local politics; the method of their election is not its cause. In Hackney, once a byword for local government failure, Labour mayor Jules Pipe has presided over a council which went from one to three stars in the space of three years. Like his fellow Labour directly elected mayors, Robin Wales in Newham and Steve Bullock in Lewisham, Pipe was re-elected for a third term in June 2010. Elsewhere, North Tyneside, again with a directly elected mayor, is rated one of the country’s most improved local authorities. And, as the example of the country’s most high-profile mayor, that in London, has demonstrated, direct election provides a degree of accountability, visibility and leadership which, whatever its merits, the local government status quo too often fails to provide.
It is these facts that should be kept in mind as voters prepare to go to the polls this May in referendums in England’s 11 biggest cities to decide whether they, too, should opt for directly elected mayors. Indeed, Liverpool’s Labour leader has announced this morning that – under a deal concluded with the government which will bring in £130m of extra funding – the council there will vote next month on moving to the mayoral model. If councillors approve the move, the city’s voters will elect a mayor in May. Also today, in a separate move, voters in Salford are deciding whether to have a mayor – a ballot triggered by the city’s citizens under legislation brought in by the last Labour government.
Labour is yet to take a position on what voters should do. Sadly, it is currently voting in parliament against the individual referendums being set for May, while maintaining the pretence that it is not the referendums per se it objects to, but the government’s decision to require cities to hold them. Now is the time for Labour to end its obfuscation, come off the fence and argue for a model which it created – but did far too little to advance – when it was in government.
But the party should go further. While arguing for a ‘Yes’ vote, Labour should take the coalition to task for its lack of ambition in empowering our cities and regions and its continuing attachment to ‘Whitehall knows best’. It should also use any mayoral elections that follow to underline its commitment to doing politics differently by using primaries – open to anyone who joins the new Labour Supporters’ Network – to pick its candidates.
We would have preferred, and Labour should still argue for, city-region mayors, with powers akin to those exercised by the mayor of London, rather than the rather watered-down version the government is offering to voters. Indeed, the failure of the Localism Act to set out clearly what powers the new mayors would have is a serious omission. The government is calling for cities ‘to come forward with their proposals’ for powers. Any ‘local public function’, the act vaguely pledges, can, if the government agrees, then be transferred to the city mayor.
There are two dangers here. First, it is bizarre to ask voters to decide whether they wish to create a new local officeholder without knowing what powers that individual will be able to exercise. Second, as local government expert Anna Turley argues on page 24, ‘there is still a concept of “earned autonomy” for our cities here, rather than a presumption in favour of devolution, which ultimately keeps the power in Whitehall’s hands.’ In short, there is no guarantee that these mayors will get what they ask for.
In place of the coalition’s hazy offer to England’s cities, Labour should provide clarity. As in London, control over policing, transport, planning and economic regeneration should pass to city-regions. While the government continues to pursue its muddled plans for directly elected police commissioners, allowing the mayor – as he does in London – to oversee policing and, effectively, hire and fire the police commissioner makes much more sense.
Real power – and a real say in economic regeneration – requires cities to be able to raise cash, as well as to spend it. So why not trial The Purple Book’s proposal that local government should be able to vary the basic and higher rate of income tax by three pence in the pound in those cities which opt for directly elected mayors?
There is one further power that city mayors should be given: that to appoint school commissioners, new local champions for standards which shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg is considering as part of his policy review. As the growth of academies and free schools continues apace, local authorities have less power. While we remain firmly convinced of the case for academies, and believe their freedom and autonomy must be protected, the power to deal with those that are failing or coasting now effectively rests in Whitehall. It should not. Commissioners would not manage schools, but would monitor the overall performance of all schools in their area, ensuring fair access and that local needs are met when new schools are proposed.
Labour should back a ‘Yes’ vote in May, and use the opportunity to reinvigorate local politics and participation, while exposing the paucity of the coalition’s offer to England’s cities. Miliband has good reason to be wary of what he has seen of mayors in Doncaster. But he should remember that, on this occasion at least, not all politics is local.
Anna Turley, Doncaster, elected mayors, English Democrats, Hackney, Jules Pipe, Labour, Labour Supporters’ Network, Lewisham, local government, localism act, London, mayor of London, Newham, planning, Robin Wales, Stephen Twigg, Steve Bullock, transport, Whitehall