Thursday, 27 November 2014

Devolution and the price of fish...


Yesterday along with fellow Conservatives from West Yorkshire (well, a couple of them) I headed to London to talk with the Treasury about devolution to West Yorkshire. We went there with the desire to explore the political, possible and practical knowing that our opposite numbers in Labour had already submitted some suggestions - I commented on the secrecy surrounding these proposals the other day.

Rest assured dear reader that the conversations we had down in London didn't come to any conclusions - we aren't about to rush through some secret deal for devolution. But there were some interesting aspects to the discussion.

Firstly, while there's an appetite for devolution in West Yorkshire and in London, there's a bit of a bother about the changes not being seen somehow as a 'new tier of government'. This echoes a familiar observation - "if the answer to your question is more politicians, then you're asking the wrong question!" But the reality of course is that there is already a 'sub-regional' tier of government, it's just that you don't notice it much. We have the new and shiny 'combined authority' that has swept together what used to be the 'public transport authority' with some limited powers around regeneration and planning. This adds to some other West Yorkshire government bodies - the police authority (now with its 'Police and Crime Commissioner'), the fire and civil defence authority and West Yorkshire Joint Services.

At the moment the democratic cost of these bodies (i.e. how much cash it takes to have politicians sitting on committees and boards) is somewhere near £700,000 - to say that setting up a new body (or mayor or whatever) is creating a new tier of government is incorrect. If we replaced all that West Yorkshire stuff with a single body it probably wouldn't cost that much - even before we take account of all the other duplicated bureaucracy.

Secondly, however much we might be twitchy about elected mayors, the ability of a Boris with a big mandate and big boots to bully central government can't be underestimated. This isn't to say that a West Yorkshire mayor would carry the oomph of Boris but it is to explain that the big mandate matters nearly as much as the personality. For sure there are political considerations (we did talk about these) but the fact remains that a high profile individual elected by 2.5 million has much more impact that an indirectly elected council leader - even one with the grand title of 'Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority'.

The deal presented as a revelation in Greater Manchester is something of a fudge - you get a mayor but that person's chained down by the regions council leaders making it hard to deliver real direction (especially if the City's residents decide to elect an independent or Conservative while all but one or two of the leaders are Labour). Even with the most likely outcome - a Labour mayor leading a 'cabinet' of mostly Labour leaders - the 'boot down the doors of Whitehall' factor is limited by local political consideration. And the mayor and cabinet's actions aren't subject to effective, independent scrutiny but rather to scrutiny by councillors appointed by those same leaders who sit on the mayor's cabinet.

Finally, the deals on offer aren't about - nor do they resolve - England's democratic deficit. For all that groups like Centre for Cities want to pretend that city and city-region devolution answers this problem, it remains the case that the devolution offer is limited (it doesn't include education and health beyond some administrative changes, for example). And the deals don't make much difference to the dilemma of financing capital infrastructure investment. What is offered is the chance to strengthen the delivery of current transport, regeneration and housing investment plus the ability to get plans drawn up, give them political backing and thwack them down on the Treasury table saying 'this is what we want funding'.

There's a long way to go - the best we can expect this side of a general election is some proposals. And the wider devolution debate - the one about England - moves on (unresolved so far). If we do move to a West Yorkshire (or perhaps a wider West Riding) model, I'm sure it will involve an elected mayor. The real question isn't this one but the rest of the governance - do we need a directly elected assembly as London has or will some sort of appointed system via existing local councils be good enough to hold a powerful mayor to account?

A long way to go yet but I know one thing - saying 'no, we don't want that sort of thing' really doesn't help the argument. The price of fish is simple - do you want a mayor plus elected assembly, a mayor plus appointed combined authority or nothing (and the joy of watching mayors from Manchester, Merseyside, Sheffield and Newcastle thwacking down their schemes and sucking up the infrastructure funding). Interesting times!



Anonymous said...

Very useful. If all we're getting this side of the election is "some proposals", what's the status of the deal they want to announce by the autumn statement? Won't the deal's contents set in stone all the important stuff like the geography, powers and governance arrangements?

Apropos of which, the WYCA/LEP say in their devolution response to Westminster that one of their first steps will be to get: "legislative reform enabling local determination of CA membership and leadership arrangements". Any idea what they mean? Did you discuss that at the Treasury?

Simon Cooke said...

Leeds Citizen. Those words, as far as I can understand, is code for "we don't want a mayor" and "we want the arrangements we've got now". I am 100% sure that the Treasury won't wear that. For completeness Labour in Bradford have a motion to the next council on this issue.