England & Wales Brexit, Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

May’s U-turn on Mayors


Today, The Times has reported that Theresa May is to abandon George Osborne’s plans for imposing regional mayors. The reason behind the change of policy? The Prime Minister’s wish to avoid establishing ‘new powerbases’ for the moderate wing of the Labour party.

It has also been argued that the EU referendum in June was held as a tool for internal Conservative Party management. This is not a sound basis for policy making and nor should devolution be driven by national party politics. We should remember that it’s not about what works for Westminster it’s about what works for areas like Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley and all the other regions around the country that are set to benefit from increased powers.

So far, DCLG and Lord Heseltine have denied the claims, saying that Mayors ‘remain the best way to make [deals] work’. Of course, this does not mean they will not row back on the mandatory element of the mayor programme.

Though the government stopped short of forcing it on local authorities, directly elected mayors were a core part of George Osborne’s strategy, and attitudes in DCLG seemed to be hardening on the issue over the course of 2016.

LGiU has always argued that the decision to establish a directly elected mayor should be a local one and that different models might be appropriate in different areas of the country.

Directly elected mayors can be very positive for a region: they can provide a figurehead and political voice for a region and speak on a national platform for the local community. They have lots of soft convening power and direct accountability to their electorate. In a recent LGiU article, we argued that Mayors could use their powerful local mandate to ensure that those operating within the local state are accountable and transparent while maintaining acceptable standards.

Mayors provide one answer to questions around leadership and accountability at a local level – but they are not the only answer. There are plenty of other models for regional governance, from a rolling chairship to a committee structure. Two-tier rural areas in particular have found it difficult to reconcile their ambitions for devolution with the introduction of a mayor. Other parts of the country have already voted against the idea of mayors in a local referendum. And, without a Mayor, you will still need to answer questions of governance and accountability.  LGiU is continuing to explore these options.

It’s no surprise that Labour MPs have realised that running a city is a bigger draw than spending years in opposition. However, Theresa May’s reasoning for her u-turn on mayors shouldn’t be politically driven – it should be about sharing prosperity and growth as well as increasing democracy and local accountability.