Manchester has a proud history and a distinctive identity. Or used to. Yet Greater Manchester Transport has become ‘Transport for Greater Manchester’, because that’s the word-order they now use in London. And yesterday, George Osborne announced a Boris for Greater Manchester, just two years after the city voted down the idea of a directly elected mayor. The new man or woman will take control of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, whose members have surrendered their democratic rights in return for a promise that a few more crumbs will be devolved to the area.
Apart from Bristol, all the big cities ordered to vote on having an elected mayor rejected the idea, but Osborne is determined to roll it out regardless, with Leeds next in his sights. Osborne’s job, of course, is to run the Treasury so the fact that he’s now become the expert on local government structures shows how deep purely financial interests now reach into the dark heart of policy-making. Or maybe the minister actually responsible, Yorkshireman Eric Pickles, knows better than to court controversy on the wrong side of the Pennines.
The Mayor will take over some or all of the role of Police & Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester. Perhaps the thinking is that with more to do, he or she might even motivate voters to turn out, something they won’t do for the PCCs. In last week’s PCC by-election in South Yorkshire, turnout was 15%. In the first round of PCC elections in 2012, one ballot box in Newport famously contained not a single paper. Why can’t we just dissolve the people and elect a new one? Where’s the point in offering them anything when they’re clearly not interested? Oh, but they are if they’re Scottish. Scotland’s independence referendum, with an 84.5% turnout, shows that the fault doesn’t lie with the voters. It lies with those who keep asking the wrong questions, creating new posts that no-one outside the London-based think-tanks ever asked for, disrupting local arrangements that were well understood. Come along now children, we’re going to the polls today. Shan’t. But you know it’s your civic duty to sign away your power with the mark of an illiterate. Not going to.
Well, good for them. We’ve always had a sense of solidarity with those up north who have their whole world regularly turned upside down by the social vivisectionists in London. Their governance, their economy, their identity, all are things to be experimented with until the region conforms to London expectations. (Serve them right, you may well say, for voting for London parties instead of for their own and you’d be correct that they have less and less excuse now.) So they’ll be getting a Mayor of Greater Manchester and a Mayor of West Yorkshire. But if all of the recently established Combined Authorities for the conurbations are now to be turned into mayoralties, what of Tyneside / Wearside? That’s one area where things are different.
There’s still plenty of talk of creating an Integrated Transport Authority for Greater Bristol – a new Avon County Council in all but name – and the idea is unlikely to go away any time soon. The same thinking resurfaces at times like this in South Hampshire. The fact is that it’s yesterday’s solution. Tyne & Wear had an Integrated Transport Authority until this year, when it was abolished in favour of the North East Combined Authority, a wider body taking in the surrounding counties. If you want better transport, it has to be better for everyone, not just the cities. It has to be about developing a transport network, and for that you need a regional perspective. The North East Combined Authority is a step in that direction, being not much smaller in area than the regional assembly that voters rejected in 2004, though it lacks direct elections or significant new powers.
So when Osborne completes his roll-out, will there be a Mayor of the North East? Where does the nonsense end? Ed Miliband, not wishing to be outflanked, is promising powers to arbitrary groupings of shires, to be known as ‘county regions’. Will they be getting mayors too? The Mayor of Cornwall & Isles of Scilly? The Mayor of Heart of the South West? With Manchester Londonised, and Leeds next, is English local government all doomed to find transparent, deliberative democracy phased out in favour of an elective dictatorship of personality politicians forming a scrum round the Treasury’s big ball of money? Rugby is perhaps the wrong analogy. This isn’t Rugby. This is Eton. (Or maybe St Paul’s.)
David Cameron has bought-in to the current fad for empowering England’s big cities because it enables any more radical action to be kicked into the long grass. Shame on Ed Miliband for not seeing this. It’s a fad however that deserves to be comprehensively deconstructed:
1. Cameron is not to be trusted on decentralisation. He promised ‘localism’: an end to Whitehall interference in local decision-making. Instead he has allowed Whitehall to obtain new powers to interfere, while making none of the really big changes that are needed. Whole Whitehall departments such as Communities and Education have no other significant function but to interfere in local decision-making. They wouldn’t be missed. So why the delay in scrapping them?
2. The ‘cities first’ agenda isn't about fairness. It degrades the importance of the lives lived by those of us who are not in the big cities. If cities are trusted to make their own decisions, why hold back the countryside and small towns? Have they nothing to contribute? Why do they need to be micro-managed from London if others don’t?
3. It will be nice for some to get more powers, but aren’t these the same powers – or some of them – that have been taken away from local government over the past 70 years, by Labour efficiency men and Tory ideologues? Don’t the strings attached make any concessions meaningless?
4. The idea of cities as drivers of economic growth is flavour of the month. But other economic geographies are available – like the South Coast Metropole or the M4 Corridor. These are geographies that transcend local government boundaries but fit naturally within the boundaries of a Wessex region. Should radicals even be welcoming the idea of economic growth anyway? Can we be sure that it’s not just a euphemism for environmental, cultural and social devastation, here or abroad? Who benefits, besides the bankers?
5. City-regions, whatever their boundaries or powers, are just a different kind of local government. They're a distraction from the business of real regionalists, which is to devolve power to the nations and regions of Britain. Cities won’t have assemblies with law-making powers and exclusive control of the NHS, education policy, regional railways or the environment. Cities deserve more power, but so do we all. Regional devolution is the bold, substantial way to deliver that.
6. Applying extreme surgery to local government in order to replicate the ‘London effect’ is missing the point. London is more successful and other cities less so not because it has an elected mayor but because London houses the UK Government and benefits from its largesse. A Boris for every big city is no more than constitutional facadism if that regional concentration of power and resources is not addressed. A Boris first, then we might think about devolution, is the kind of insulting, controlling behaviour that proves London is not serious about sharing.
The cities agenda is intimately linked to the roll-out of elected mayors. And that's very much about taking decisions out of the public glare of the council chamber and into closed rooms where Big Business and Big Government can do deals with the lone, bullyable individual in whom all power is vested. This isn't about opening up democracy; it's all about shutting it down.
And it doesn’t matter which party is in power. A ruling-class consensus emerged sometime in the 1990s that English local government was to be changed over to an American / continental model, something that had been discussed on the fringes of power since at least the 1970s. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, have no elected mayors, but devolution there provides an alternative focus for strategic decision-making that arguably makes them unnecessary.
The collegiate style that has served England well for centuries is an anomaly. But how to get rid of it? Blair tried the fanfare approach. Choose how to be governed, by demanding a referendum! Few found the offer appealing. Cameron / Clegg applied more pressure. Compulsory referenda, with the previous right to undo the decision withdrawn. Bristol apart, it still didn’t work. So Osborne is sent in to twist the arms of civic leaders until they say that yes, in the name of our unconsulted electorates, we volunteer to give you everything if you’ll give us just a little.
There may or may not be a good case for elected mayors but there probably isn’t. The fact that only calling in the heavies produces results suggests that the case is not one normally found compelling. The fact that other countries do things their way isn’t a convincing argument in itself for following suit. If it were, then any comparison with American or continental practice would reveal the existence of state or regional governments. And where are they in the Coalition’s harmonisation scheme? The case for following foreign practice in that respect is much, much stronger than the case for elected mayors. Not least because it would be a fundamental shift in the location of power, rather than a reshuffling of an existing pack to reduce transparency and increase the scope for keeping local government on a tight leash.
Analysis of what’s going on is, sadly, far too easy. Our politics is built upon the idea that power and money reside in London and that our best chance of seeing those things used for our benefit is to bow deeply and tug our forelocks hard.
The London regime has no power but that which our votes give it. The London regime has no money but that which our taxes give it. (Even its stupendous debts would be impossible to run up without a reasonable expectation of them being honoured at some point.) While we have no quarrel with the ordinary folk of London, a new politics, a politics of regional renaissance, must work ceaselessly to deny it both these things. Because we too, in all of the regions, have a voice to be heard and a vision of a better life to be lived.