What works for Manchester might not work for Leeds - it is important that governance models are adaptable
George Osborne is right to pursue his devolutionary agenda immediately after the election. Many assumed that the Northern Powerhouse was an electoral gimmick but his energy for city devolution would appear undiminished with today’s speech in Manchester announcing a new City Devolution Bill.
The Bill would have been necessary in some form in order to push through the powers already promised to Greater Manchester, but the fact that the chancellor is choosing to frame the announcement as a counterweight to the devolution being promised to Scotland is not insignificant. Many commentators have argued that devolution in England is an important way to address the so-called ‘English Question’.
It is also significant that there is a stronger element of fiscal devolution within these new announcements. With a London mayoral election now on the horizon, the demands of the London Finance Commission will no doubt come to the fore and London has joined forces with the Core Cities group to press this City-Centred fiscal devolution agenda.
But there is a significant sticking point in this fresh push for city devolution: Osborne’s insistence on cities adopting a ‘metro-mayor’ as a condition of further devolution, as Greater Manchester has done.
IPPR has long argued that metro mayors are a vital means of building the visible leadership and democratic accountability necessary for the more radical devolution of taxation and spending we want to see but even in this arena, the chancellor needs to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all model for metro mayors.
In 2012 many cities held referendums on ‘city mayors’ covering the more limited local authority geography around city centres – rather than city regions. With no promise of any new powers, this model was rightly rejected in all but Bristol and Liverpool (where the public didn’t get to vote).
Osborne’s advocacy of metro mayors covering entire city regions is the better approach but it is important to note that the London and Greater Manchester models – both cited by the chancellor – are very different in form and function. Both have powers over policing and transport, but the Greater Manchester mayor will have more powers over housing and strategic planning. Crucially they will also have a say in health, social care and other public services not possible with the London model.
Their models of accountability are very different too. The London mayor is held accountable to what could be cast as ‘an extra tier of bureaucracy’ in the form of the Greater London Assembly – something explicitly ruled out elsewhere in the Conservative Party manifesto.
The Greater Manchester mayor will have no City Hall and will be held to account by the 10 elected leaders of the Combined Authority as a member of the Combined Authority cabinet, the arrangements for which could be seen as giving the local leaders – not the mayor – the whip hand on most matters.
Looking further afield one finds very many more varieties of ‘metro mayor’ in Europe and the US – each suited to the particular economic, social and historical geography of their particular places – and far fewer examples of direct election at the city-region level than some would expect. These include leaders’ boards with a delegated city-region ‘president’ (Bologna) or a fixed-term, rotating chair; elected and unelected ‘assemblies’ (Rotterdam) and ‘standing conferences’ of key stakeholders who are responsible for a city-region strategy and plan (Barcelona).
Unlike Manchester, many of our city regions are ‘polycentric’ with a number of hubs of economic activity competing for predominance (Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford in West Yorkshire for example). Here, a rotating, delegated city-region president might be more effective. In the North East, where a more plural approach to democratic change is being explored, a standing conference could elect a metro-mayor.
While neither of these has that vital dynamic element of direct election, the visibility and accountability of a figurehead role has proved sufficient in many successful European cities.
If the devolution agenda is to move forward, there is an urgent need for flexibility. Just as Manchester was able to develop its own model of metro-mayor distinctive from the London one, so other UK cities need to have the breadth of scope and ingenuity of dialogue to adapt a governance model to suit their own geographical and political circumstances.
Ed Cox is the director of IPPR North. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.