Leading article

Say no to devolution without democracy

Manchester rejected an elected mayor. George Osborne should respect that

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

Imagine if, in one of her first acts as First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon announced that, in spite of the result of September’s independence vote, Scotland was to declare independence anyway, on the basis that opinion polls now showed a majority of people in favour of independence and therefore there was no need for the decision to be approved in a referendum. David Cameron and his government would surely treat it as an outrage.

Why, then, has the Chancellor this week seen fit to announce that the people of Greater Manchester are to have a directly elected mayor? Two years ago the very same question was put to the people of the City of Manchester in a referendum and the answer was a resounding ‘no’. They, along with residents of eight other cities, decided that they did not wish to have an expensive extra layer of municipal government to indulge the latest fashions in Whitehall. Yet now they are to get one, whether they like it or not.

The Treasury argues that the soon-to-be-imposed mayoralty differs from the one Mancunians rejected because it covers the whole of Greater Manchester, as opposed to just the city of Manchester. But the fact that it covers a much wider area, and involves the transfer of more powers than the plan rejected in 2012, is all the more reason for obtaining a popular mandate for the change. Back then, nine out of 11 cities who were asked if they wanted a mayor replied that they did not. The Chancellor seems to believe that northerners are there to be invoked rather than consulted.

As we have seen so many times with referendums on EU treaties in other countries, the people are being treated with contempt for giving the wrong answer. The referendum over, it was — to quote the failed Democrat candidate Dick Tuck — a case of ‘the people have spoken, the bastards’.

There is plenty of political rationale behind the announcement of a Greater Manchester mayor. Polls show that 80 per cent in England like the idea of greater devolution of power to the regions, as more power is being devolved to the Scottish Parliament. George Osborne knows that his programme to reduce the deficit is only half done and, indeed, is going backwards at present. As a result, the cuts needed after the election will be far harsher, going far deeper (especially as the gargantuan NHS budget is being ‘protected’). Devolving budgets to a regional mayor creates a buffer between himself and the councils who so bitterly opposed his last round of cuts.

This has a certain logic: every lollipop lady taken from the streets, every closed day centre, will be down to decisions taken in town halls. But scheming of this kind is apt to backfire. Mrs Thatcher calculated that residents shocked by their inflated poll tax bills would chuck overspending Labour councils out of office so as to reduce their bills. But instead they blamed the government for introducing the poll tax. By creating regional political powerhouses George Osborne risks inflating opposition to Westminster reforms. The result is likely to resemble France, where strong regional government locks horns with central government and makes reform more difficult.

The London mayoralty has not yet really suffered from this problem, because for only two years of its 14-year existence has the incumbent of City Hall come from a party other than that in Downing Street. (Although elected as an independent the first time around, Ken Livingstone quickly returned to the Labour fold.) No London mayor can complain of decisions being imposed from afar, since the national government sits only two miles away. The Greater Manchester mayoralty will be very different. It would take an extraordinary piece of gerrymandering to deny Labour victory in a Greater Manchester mayoral election. The reality will be supercharged local government opposition whenever the Conservatives are in power.

What is it about the governance of Greater Manchester which the government finds so unsatisfactory? The city has been one of the great regional success stories of the last 20 years. Money and people have flowed into the city, reversing decades of decline. The absence of a Greater Manchester mayor has not prevented the city from building a tram system nor from developing Britain’s only two-runway airport other than Heathrow — a rare triumph of public sector ownership.

The places which are struggling at the moment are not the big cities which may be next for elected mayors — Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle — but the secondary places: the Blackburns, the Sunderlands, the Bradfords. But these seem likely to be left out of Osborne’s vision for Northern powerhouses, with no grandly-titled mayors, no high-speed rail services and not much road investment either. And has any city been more badly let down by local government than Birmingham?

This week has hardly been a good one for the concept of directly elected mayors. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has seized control of Tower Hamlets after a report by accountancy firm PwC condemned mismanagement and a crony culture on the part of the elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman. There is a good reason why the people of Manchester rejected the idea of creating a new fiefdom over their city, perhaps envisaging some of the same problems which have occurred in Tower Hamlets. It is a shame that George Osborne has chosen to ignore them.

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  • Mr_Ominous

    Essentially this is an EU requirement that has to be enforced. It also enables Osborne to let more regions keep the tax revenue they generate which means northern cities will receive less (or no money) redistributed from the southeast which means cuts the government wouldn’t dare make would have to be made locally rather than by a Westminster government.

  • dalai guevara

    NO! This is wrong on so many levels.

    Level 1: there was no informed consent for or against anything. You might say there was a vote but people voting for or aganst an elected mayor were simply not informed about the subject matter. So the consent of rejection was not informed and therefore not valid.

    Level 2: this was not George Osborne’s idea, HS3 to Leeds wasn’t Osborne’s idea, decentralisation wasn’t Osborne’s idea, more powers to local communities wasn’t Osborne’s idea. None of this and many other points not listed here now were n o t George Osborne’s ideas.
    In fact, the opposite is the case – G.O. is in the front line to take the blame for closing down the periphery and effectively focussing on the London centre only. Now he is waking up, now he realises what this contraction has caused – G.O. is not as stubborn as Thatcher was then, he will not be in power as long as Thatcher was then so the damage he caused/will cause in the periphery will be limited. Substantial, but limited.

    Level 3: we know what we need in Manchester. Howard Bernstein explained it, Richard Leese seconds it. This team that has worked well for Manchester for many years will come to an end one day – it must not be replaced by a David Moyes but a proper chap or lass knowing exactly what he/she is doing.
    We people of Manchester need most urgently, apart from all the more direct funding packages for the city and its region, an INTEGRATED TRANSPORT SYSTEM. The city was in effect split by the boys into North and South: the North is ‘owned’ by First, the South is ‘owned’ by Stagecoach. Now a third provider, via trams, connects both and has blown wide open this North/South divide of the city.

    Get the Oyster system up and running, chaps – we have waited over a decade.
    Make it happen. Connect the people, make travel affordable. We do nto want a card system and pay for tram and then bus again and then another bus again, we demand an INTEGRATED SYSTEM as in London, Germany, Belgium, France, Holland, Spain … everywhere frankly. Just stop wafflin’ and get crackin’ lads.

  • TheEthicaliser

    You’ve got it in one neat paragraph there

    “This week has hardly been a good one for the concept of directly elected mayors. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has seized control of Tower Hamlets after a report by accountancy firm PwC condemned mismanagement and a crony culture on the part of the elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman. There is a good reason why the people of Manchester rejected the idea of creating a new fiefdom over their city, perhaps envisaging some of the same problems which have occurred in Tower Hamlets. It is a shame that George Osborne has chosen to ignore them.”

    But the most remarkable thing about the Eric Pickles “take over” speech in the House of Commons is the absence of any reference to genuine Democratic audit.
    Why would that be?
    A clue is in his admiration of the Newham Council, next door to Tower Hamlets, also with an Executive Mayor.
    Although Newham is Labour, its Mayor has been repeatedly praised by the Daily Express! Is that a coincidence?
    Newham Council has been doing much to desocialise the remaining social housing remit, thereby making the poor and the low income families even poorer, driving many to leave their home borough.
    The same has been happening in Tower Hamlets, as the latest C4 presentation
    for the ConDem Coalition Agenda has proven .
    None of this has been featuring in the public pronouncements by Eric Pickles.
    Nor, come to that, in the supposed counter to him as stated by Ken Livingstone and his colleagues.
    Nor is any of this being considered at all relevant by the Communist Party daily Morning Star.
    No surprise then that Pickles can claim to be catching all the fish in a pond with no Competition.
    Which brings this comment to the role of Mr Ed Miliband and his leadership on local democracy.
    It seems that he too is quietly content with the project of doing away with local democracy.
    All of the above and a few related factors have therefore combined to give Osborne the feeling that he can end the remaining democratic remit and nobody will notice it!
    So far, nobody has done!
    They may do so after their local ‘mediaeval monarch’ ( Eric Pickles words about Tower Hamlets) has forced them to ‘eat grass’!

  • rtj1211

    The biggest argument in favour of city mayors is for those seeking to use undue influence to affect decisions. If you have one person with very significant powers, it’s pretty obvious who to bung with brown envelopes. It’s also pretty obvious who to ‘support electorally’ with ‘significant political donations’ prior to elections – someone who is amenable to bribery.

    The reason that corrupt executives don’t like dispersal of power and prmes inter pares styles of leadership is that it’s much harder to bung everyone to get the results you want.

    The more you concentrate leadership, the more you can distort ‘democracy’ through organised money.

    Harsh, but true, I’m afraid……..

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      …as the residents of Tower Hamlets are finding. Well, not quite all of them – a select handful are doing very nicely.

  • Greyfox

    Ah yes but the problem is that the people don’t realise how good this will be for them. Only the political elite have clear unbiased views, based on their wisdom and impeccable dogma. In such cases it is probably best to ignore the electorate and carry on with elitist plans