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Busy saying nothing?

Connect’s Steve Barwick thinks he may have found the most remarkable consultation document ever…

17 November 2011

I have never read a consultation document like it. ‘What can a mayor do for your city?’ doesn't actually propose that any powers be transferred to an elected mayor.

It is a remarkable consultation because it is wholly unremarkable.

It does not, for example, say that mayors should be chair of their local LEP - as the Local Growth White Paper stated 12 months ago.  Nor does it propose greater powers over transport or housing. How about more influence over health and skills? Not a word of it.

But maybe I am missing a trick here. Maybe it is a stroke of genius in this brave new world of localism? What it actually says is: ‘We are proposing a bottom up approach where we look to the cities to come forward with their proposals for powers for their mayors."

Perhaps it was suggested that, rather than going through all the stress and disappointment of writing to each department of government to discuss what they will (and will not) devolve, that the government ask the cities what they want.  A cynic might suggest that such an approach would defer the day when the paucity of localism will be exposed.

Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps government really does want the cities - the majority of which are northern, feeling the heat of deficit reduction and Labour with a capital L - to present a robust case for a set of powers that will allow them to control, and change, their destiny.

But there is also growing evidence of a slackening off in the coalition's commitment to rebalancing the economy 'geographically'. The West Midlands and Yorkshire & Humber together did not do as well as South East from Round 2 of the Regional Growth Fund.  The Northern Hub, which is critical to the North West, looks in danger of only being partially funded.  Ditto HS2, which may make it to Birmingham but, as the Select Committee recently recommended, should roll onto Leeds and Manchester ASAP.

The West Yorkshire question

I had hoped the consultation would resolve, or at least throw a light on, the ‘West Yorkshire Question.'  The local growth paper suggests that an elected mayor should chair the LEP – but what happens if one LEP has three mayors - Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield? Do they draw lots?

Many councillors remain ambivalent to the prospect of elected mayors.  Will they be encouraged when they read the consultation document? It seems unlikely.

Those who remember the 'Your Region, Your Choice' White Paper will remember the arguments about the need for genuine devolution in order to avoid elected regional assemblies becoming talking shops. The electorate gave their view in November 2004 when their lack of real resources and levers to facilitate change became clear. Will history repeat itself?

I wonder if an alternative approach was considered?  Would you want an elected mayor for your city to have the same powers - nothing more, nothing less - as the Mayor of London? Do you want a city mayor or a city region (aka metro) mayor - or, for those in the north, one for the whole 14million population?

Now that is a consultation that would have sparked interest and provoked debate as well as responses.  Unlike this singularly unremarkable document.

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