The option of directly elected leaders is being discussed for county devolution agreements, but the idea is controversial, writes Jessica Hill, deputy editor of LGC.
Discussions can be very lively during council meetings – one need only think of that infamous Handforth Parish Council session to see how spirits can dramatically overflow. But imagine the heckling that could ensue in a scenario where a longtime Tory-controlled county council finds itself ruled by a Labor leader who, unlike his fellow councilors, is directly elected by the public and is therefore armed with its own political mandate. Sparks can indeed fly.
Could this be the future of local politics? Because it seems that if the prime minister gets what he wants, more regions will have some sort of directly elected figurehead – whether that is a combined authority mayor for the unitarized regions linked together under the framework. a devolution agreement, or potentially a brand new populist county council head. At the moment, it’s unclear exactly what the plans are.
LGC understands that the directly elected leader model has been suggested by government officials for the county areas as an alternative to the metro mayor model, as it would provide the “single point of accountability” that ministers like, but without them. additional layers of governance involved in establishing a joint authority.
Herin lies in the possibility, as one source put it, that a decidedly Tory-led council like Essex CC potentially ends up at daggers drawn with a leader of an opposing party – say, Labor – who has been elected by the public. “Directly elected leadership would be expensive in such areas,” said the source.
But there are questions about how this model really fits into the government’s vision. Cornwall, which was the first rural authority in the country to conclude a devolution agreement with the government in 2015, was reportedly cited by authorities as a shining example of the ideal model for a future devolution agreement. And yet the county has managed to happily cope without a directly elected leader for the past six years.
As a source told LGC yesterday after the call with Mr Hall, “we currently have more questions than answers.” Time will tell if ‘devolution’ really means the same thing when spoken by Mr Johnson or Mr Hall as it does to us, and how much there really is an appetite for more directly elected leaders.
In his upgrade speech, Boris Johnson spoke enthusiastically in favor of the metro mayor model, saying that “after 20 years of trial and error” devolution was paying off. He said that “it is not entirely a coincidence that our large cities that appeared to be in long-term decline are now seeing a resurgence in population and productivity growth that outstrips the rest of the country.”
But one need only look at the fact that the Labor Party performed so poorly in the recent parliamentary elections, but still managed to win eight of the ten subway town halls, to see that the mayor model has not been a resounding success. for Mr. Johnson. own party. It is therefore somewhat surprising to hear him credit such mayors for having turned around the fortunes of cities.
A bit cryptically, the Prime Minister also said that one possibility would be a “directly elected mayor for each county”, while adding that “there are other possibilities”.
Perhaps the ministers have realized that there is just too much time, effort and bitter bickering to try to unify areas across the country and then form more combined authorities of mayors. And they understand that long-term structural reform does not necessarily pay off at the polls. So, rather than trying to force the reorganization, ministers seem happy to settle for a patchwork of different levels and structures – which is sure to leave the general public scratching their heads even more than they do. already done on who is responsible for what.
It is also unclear what prizes are offered to estates able to muster the time and collective energy over the next few months to present proposals. Local government minister Luke Hall told a ministerial webinar yesterday that a comprehensive devolution deal could include housing and planning. But the government is also rolling out its planning reforms later this year, which appear more likely to take powers away from local authorities than adding to their arsenal.
The minister said strong local leadership was crucial for leveling and decentralization could be achieved through county agreements, new investments and innovations and by supporting local economies.
The government’s message is that the councils discuss their devolution wish lists over the summer and then come back to them with their suggestions. It is assumed that the government is hoping to get proposals before making an announcement on its upgrade white paper. Mr Hall said it would be around the same time as the expenditure review, which normally falls in the fall.
But with so many in the industry now taking a well-deserved break from their jobs, having worked hard during the pandemic, boards now have very little time to get their devo in order. ducks.
While current government language treats higher-level councils as the primary authorities in decentralization, it is understandable that the network of district councils is pushing for its members to be at the forefront of any deal.
There are also fears, especially in regions that have recently been the subject of a tense reorganization consultation process, that it might be difficult to work harmoniously on a potential deal.
Asked about the next steps in the reorganization, Somerset CC leader David Fothergill (Con) told LGC that “the past few months have been incredibly toxic and we need to rebuild these relationships to get results for the people of Somerset” .
But let’s end on a positive note. Over the past year, skepticism about the government’s willingness to engage in devolution has been such that the Local Government Association at one point decided to give way to direct lobbying on its behalf. Most people, myself included, assumed that the Prime Minister’s apparent contempt for Scottish devolution and his officials’ feuds with Andy Burnham during the pandemic had added more nails to the coffin of devolution. It seems we were wrong: Perhaps the experience of the pandemic really convinced ministers that things often work best when managed locally.