North East devolution: Deal should include voting shake-up and see mayor faces scrutiny

The Conservatives' devolution Bill, which would see power handed to the North East Combined Authority, has been debated in the House of Lords

Lord John Shipley
Lord John Shipley

A Devolution deal for the North East must include a shake-up of the voting system and guarantee robust scrutiny of any mayor figure created, the House of Lords heard.

Peers warned against concentrating too much responsibility in the hands of one individual and set out a series of alternatives as the Bill started its journey through Parliament on Monday.

The North East Combined Authority, which brings together the seven councils from Northumberland to County Durham, is poised to take on a portfolio of powers from Whitehall, which could include health, policing, transport and economic development.

But Lib Dem Lord John Shipley said the model proposed by the Conservatives’ devolution Bill - that power be handed to combined authorities ruled by an all-powerful elected mayor - must have democratic legitimacy as he pointed out most North East people did not vote Tory at the election and had concerns about mayors.

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“When elections for a mayor take place, there will at least be a direct connection with the ballot box for the person entrusted with the huge powers an elected mayor will have,” the former leader of Newcastle City Council said. “But the range of powers is potentially so vast that I doubt one person can do it all – which means that much will in practice be delegated.

“We need to think very carefully about running policing, social care and health, strategic planning, housing, skills, transport, economic development and regeneration – all through one person.”

Lord Shipley also voiced concerns the North East local government was dominated by one party, and said proportional representation would hard-wire scrutiny into the system. He also favours London’s assembly-and-mayor system to allow the region’s Boris Johnson to be held to account.

Lord Jeremy Beecham at Newcastle Civic Centre
Lord Jeremy Beecham at Newcastle Civic Centre

He said: “We run the risk of creating a one-party state in which one party controls the Metro Mayor, the appointment of the Deputy, the combined authority, and the scrutiny of that mayor and the combined authority. This concentration of power into the hands of a very limited number of people when this Bill is all about devolving power seems to me to need some urgent revision.”

Labour peer Jeremy Beecham, also a former Newcastle City Council leader, said “extreme manifestations of tribalism” in local government are now rare, but argued installing a mayor boiled down to Tory politics.

He said: “One of the major difficulties with the proposals is the apparent insistence on the requirement of an elected mayor before significant powers can be granted, without even any test of public opinion. The case for elected mayors is much over-stated.”

He also said a single mayor for vast geography of the North East was not realistic and said independent scrutiny via committees was the key to ensuring accountability on combined authorities.

He said: “The North East Combined Authority extends from Berwick on the Border to the boundaries of Darlington and Teesside, from Cumbria to the North Sea Coast comprising five metropolitan districts and two counties with substantial rural areas, and a population the size of Northern Ireland, two thirds the size of Wales.

“The notion of accountability vesting in a single pair of hands for such an area is unreal and unacceptable. One wonders whether the siren voice of Nick Boles who proclaimed that elected mayors was the only route back for the Tories in Manchester has influenced the government’s approach, especially in the light of the rejection of the concept in all but one of the cities which were subjected to referendums only three years ago.”

He added: “There is no reason why the mechanism of combined authorities, backed up by well –resourced scrutiny and the active participation of public sector partners, and the private sector in appropriate policy areas, should not operate both effectively and accountably. They should have their own audit committee, or public accounts committee, independently chaired.”

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