Dr John Stanton, a Lecturer in The City Law School, says that in its realisation of the need for local democratic reform, the new government must get it right.
Last week saw the announcement of an important proposal by the new Conservative government – devolution to English cities and the opportunity to elect directly elected mayors. Labelled as the building of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the vision was that cities across the north of England would be united as part of a mass devolution of power, taking control of transport, housing, healthcare and policing, as well as their local economies. Greater Manchester has been selected to pilot the idea and to lead by example for other cities in the north and, indeed, the whole of England.
City devolution, set out in George Osborne’s announcement in Manchester, is justified on the basis that ‘the “old model” of running everything from London is “broken” … it has “made people feel remote from the decisions that affect their lives”. As spot on and much needed as this might be, Osborne seems merely to echo the words of many ministers who have gone before. Government after government sets off on a path proclaiming decentralisation for localities and a reinvigorated local democracy. The fact that the announcement seems constantly to be repeated, however, speaks volumes for the realisation of its promise. Even the Coalition’s attempts at decentralisation (set out in the Localism Act 2011) struggled successfully to be achieved – littered, as they were, with bureaucratic and centralised restrictions severely hindering their path to fruition; (to say nothing of the simultaneous financial limitations imposed on councils).The plans – for the cities themselves, at least – are likely to be welcomed, at least in terms of what is promised. Decentralisation is not something too readily to be criticised and the idea of cities being able to control and direct such policy areas as healthcare and housing is an attractive alternative to the centralist norm that has prevailed for decades. Localities should be able to control decisions and policies that affect local people, it is a central value of democracy: too centralised a system means that those far removed from local issues make decisions and policies that are detached from both these issues and the people they effect. The notion of sending power down to these cities is, in theory, a welcome one.
In addition, the prospect of a directly-elected mayor does, at first glance, offer a democratic and accountable structure with a clearly identifiable leader, governing a particular area. In recent years, however, the move to such mayors has not really been widely supported. Since 2001, 55 referenda have been held on the question of introducing directly-elected mayors in councils across England; of these, 37 rejected the model. Indeed, the Coalition’s attempt in 2012 to introduce mayors in 12 of England’s major cities resulted in 9 of these rejections. With this in mind, Osborne does note that this seemingly unpopular model will not be imposed on anyone. Let us not forget, however, that 53.2% of citizens voting in the 2012 Manchester referendum rejected a directly elected mayor for the city, yet due to an agreement reached by the leaders of Greater Manchester’s 10 councils, the Mancunians are getting something they seemingly did not want. Coupled with Osborne’s statement that ‘we will transfer major powers only to those cities who choose to have a directly elected metro-wide mayor’, it does make one wonder if this devolution promise is in part a way of bringing into effect a Conservative policy that generally failed 3 years ago. “Want more power? Have one of our mayors.”
Another question that arises with regard to these plans is – what of the rest of the country? Particularly, the communities, towns and villages outside these “devolved cities”. Are they to endure the usual programme of centralised governance, distant accountability and, as Greg Clark put it, ‘having to troop up to London and plead for crumbs from the table’? Osborne mentions that, as an extension of the City Deals programme set up under the last government, towns and counties, outside these cities, will also be the beneficiaries of further power, though how this will pan out needs to be further expatiated. It does, though, raise a further, more fundamental concern: the structural organisation of localism institutions in the UK is complex and confusing. Some areas have unitary councils, others the two tiers of district and county councils. Certain corners of England have the metropolitan boroughs; many have parish councils. London, as we know, is different. Are we now to add to this by declaring that certain northern cities and towns are to be a part of yet another creature of local organisation?
I am a huge supporter of devolution, and particularly decentralisation to local authorities and communities across the UK. Local institutions and local democracy are of paramount importance to the day-to-day life of every UK citizen. Councils need more power, more autonomy, greater freedom, and the resources to be able to use these appropriately. It is important, therefore, that in realising the need for local democratic reform, the new government gets it right.
As I noted at the start, however, it is not the first time that promises such as those made by George Osborne have been set out by incoming governments. The most fundamental hurdle to local reform then is central government; particularly the tendency always to decentralise on central-terms, with rather too much bureaucracy and with certain powers still retained at Whitehall. The long-standing inclination to interfere with local government and democracy must be restrained and those in central government must have the trust and faith to do as they promise. Local cities – and local areas throughout the UK – want and need more power. If it is going to be successful, however, then central government needs to stand back, let it happen, and trust councils to act for the good of local areas. Perhaps now is a good time to start.