The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Devolution for the UK!

14th October 2014

Author of 'Devo Max - Devo Manc', Mark Morrin, makes the case for elected Mayors in the UK

It’s coming sometime, maybe. A devolution revolution is taking place across the kingdom. It’s not just Scotland. Manchester is mad for it too. And just about everywhere else. “We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must be heard” the Prime Minister declared as he hailed the outcome of the Scottish referendum. Constitutional reforms for Scotland will be taken in tandem with changes in England, he stated, as well as devolution of further powers to the cities and regions of the UK. The government has instructed its departments to work up the plans but nothing will be delivered until after the general election. And only then will we know the scale and pace of what is offered.

Regardless of the election outcome it is vital that the next Government enacts the kind of place-based settlements which our cities, towns and counties are demanding. And that this is not side tracked by the West Lothian question or tied up in constitutional wrangles. Within the first 100 days of the next parliament there must be a significant transfer of funding and powers to cities and other places. And yet it is difficult to imagine this without a corresponding shift in local accountability and governance.

The obvious tried and tested democratic model is the elected Mayor. Acceptable in cities all over the world but somehow deemed ill suited to the British system. Local politicians are underwhelmed by the prospect and the electorate appears disinterested. But what if mayors had real powers wouldn’t that be a game changer? Wouldn’t the electorate demand the kind of transparency and accountability that an elected Mayor would bring? Wouldn’t it strengthen local politics and go some way to addressing the current apathy amongst voters for politics in general? As the turn out in Scotland indicates people will be bothered to vote when there is something to be bothered about.

And why should local politicians object? Why is it acceptable for local politicians to elect their leader, who in many respects fulfills the brief of a Mayor, and yet somehow less acceptable for the electorate to decide? Clearly party politics play their part. There will always be the chance that an elected Mayor doesn’t have a council majority. As both council and mayor could claim electoral legitimacy the potential for gridlock between a strong council and weak mayor (the Canadian model) or a weak council and a strong Mayor (the US model) would seem likely. There is also the fear that with increased executive powers the cult of personality will win out over party allegiance.

But the facts are that over the past century, such conflict has not been typical of elected Mayoral administrations around the world. In London we have seen the introduction of a new system of government, with Mayor and Assembly, and a new voting system with a form of proportional representation. This has been easily incorporated into the existing state of affairs, although the Mayors powers are significantly less than international counterparts.

There have been 51 referendums in England on the question of an elected mayor. Of these, 16 have resulted in the establishment of a new mayoralty. Overwhelmingly the electorate would appear to not want them. The prospect of an elected Metro-Mayor with powers that extend across a city-region would in this context appear even less likely. If the opposition to Mayors is so strong and nothing suitable currently exists on the statute books then what is the alternative? Business as usual? Cabinet-style oligarchy? The absence of an elected mayor should not delay the beginning of the devolution process but it is clear that places will need to quickly formulate plans that strengthen their leaderships and governance structures in return for devolved powers.


1 comment on “Devolution for the UK!”

  1. Why should somebody in London be trying to work out what system of government works well for each local authority? Surely, in the spirit of localism, each should be free to choose what works best for them. Directly elected mayors in some places, committee systems in others. Devo-max for those that do well, increased central control for those that don’t, so they’re all motivated to be self-sufficient. One size doesn’t fit all and Westminster shouldn’t be trying to make it.

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