What would a Mayor’s powers be?

This is perhaps the six million dollar question. It was certainly one that got a great deal of attention at the Bristol Mayor debate on Wednesday night. The answer is, nobody knows. While some political participants in the Coalition may see this as an issue of constitutionalism, raising questions of democracy and governance, others have framed localism as a means to growth. According to this way of thinking, the aim is to use localism (including the appointment of mayors) to ‘unlock’ growth in cities.

This is most clearly spelled out in the 2011 Cabinet Office document Unlocking Growth in Cities. Greg Clark the (Tory) Minister for Decentralisation (is this an oxymoron?) makes this point as a tradeoff in the introduction:

‘We want to help cities exercise their independence and take their economic destiny into their own hands. In this document we set out our offer. In exchange for local leadership, central government is prepared to pass down unprecedented control over budgets and powers in areas such as transport, housing, skills and business support. It is a wide-ranging list of topics for negotiation and it reflects the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution – in the coming months we will strike deals as varied as our cities themselves, tailored to the local challenges and opportunities’.

If the logic of unlocking cities is followed, then this isn’t decentralisation for decentralisation’s sake. This is decentralisation as an engine for growth. This builds on an enormous academic and economic literature, which I’ll hope to refer to in future posts.

And yet despite the force of these arguments for using cities as drivers for growth (and their links to neoliberal philosophies) localism as constructed in England does empower cities to at least partly choose their own way here. There is a remarkable flexibility about what the powers of a Mayor and the local authorities competences might be.

This is spelled out by the most symbolic provision of the 2011 Localism Act. Here Section 1 gives each local authority a ‘general power of competence’. For once the words are simple (although their interpretation may yet throw up disputes). They say:

(1) A local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do.

This is a statement of philosophy, of ambition as much as anything else (though at least partly negated by the fact that the Localism Act runs to over 400 pages and is one of the most complex pieces of legislation produced in a while). There is a tension between central government’s assertion that they are ‘prepared to hand down power’ and the general power of competence. In practice, however, if a mayor is in place (as this satisfies the governance ‘test’) local authorities will be pushing on an at least partially open door.

A good expression of this philosophy was provided by the (Lib Dem) Minister for Local Government Andrew Stunnell at a recent event hosted by the Local Government Information Unit in Bristol earlier this month. In his view the localism agenda presents a powerful shift in presumptions. It is up to local authorities to decide what they want to do and if they find something can’t be done because of central constraint, to ask whether this can be changed. The barrier busting team at DCLG are, apparently, there to help.

As Andrew Stunell put it at the LGIU event: ‘the interesting thing in the debate [about localism] since the publication of the Bill is that people have strange takes on it. The first six to nine months people kept asking when DCLG would produce a code of practice. This is for local authorities to do. It is like being released from 20 years in prison and coming out blinking. Localism is exactly what it says on the label’.

What would a Mayor’s powers be? They seem to be up for grabs as Andrew Stunell explained. The extent to which this can be decided solely at the local level is perhaps a bit more opaque than his analogies suggest. Localism as an engine for growth is a key driver: if localism doesn’t deliver growth or has different priorities, what then?

In short: All local authorities have a general power of competence under the Localism Act. Bristol is also one of 12 cities that may have a mayor. It is also one of the core cities where ‘bespoke’ decentralisation arrangements can be negotiated (in line with the Unlocking report) whether or not a mayor is elected. Other governance arrangements could be demonstrated to satisfy DCLG although the simplest (and clearly DCLG’s preferred route) is to have a mayor. A mayor would be a sufficient but not a necessary requirement for such further ‘passing down of powers’.

The tension between the Government’s preferred approach for a mayor but the resonating philosophy localism is beautifully illustrated in para. 2 of DCLG’s response this morning in What can a mayor do for your city: Government response to the mayoral consultation:

‘The Coalition Government is committed to creating directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums’.

Perhaps, like their use of the term Big Society, the best thing for central government to do is to never mention the term ‘mayor’ again and let cities make up their own minds.

p.s. For what they’re worth, these are my notes on the LGIU event. Andrew Stunnell’s speech is summarised at the end. LGIU – Localism Act – Over to You

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