Let's reflect carefully before we leap ahead with another expensive mistake

Professor Thom Brooks on the elephant trap the Government has walked into once - and may do so again

Thom Brooks, of Durham Law School
Thom Brooks

The Devil is often found in the details. This is no less true with the government’s plans for devolution. Let me explain why.

The words used in favour of these devolution plans are promising. The government wants to build a ‘northern powerhouse’ to help more of the UK enjoying the prosperity found in London and the City.

The northern powerhouse. It’s one of those things ministers say that makes you wonder if they know what it means.

All indications are it’s another way of saying Greater Manchester, but without saying it.

But why the rhetoric seems welcome – after all, the North East is in the ‘north’ – the realities tell a very different story.

Building local powerhouses is about devolving some key decision-making powers with budgetary controls over housing, transport, planning and policing. But the true spending power that would come with any devolution deal for the North East is still a known unknown.

Unsurprisingly, there are strings attached. One big string – so big it might even be a rope – is devolution powers will come with a regional mayor. This might sound like Let a Thousand Boris Johnsons Bloom, but there are real concerns behind the wizard’s curtain.

Let’s start with the obvious. The mayors would be appointed before they are directly elected, if Manchester is a guide to the future. Tony Lloyd has been appointed the interim mayor until an election takes place. In 2017. If the primary legislation gets through Parliament.

So what we’re actually looking at are politicians taking on greater powers and budgetary control without the popular mandate to do so. And they might not be elected for two years or more depending on when the law is actually changed.

When you think you’re being sold local empowerment, you get instead something different.

And this is a problem for a not so obvious reason. These appointed mayor to-be-elected-in-future-maybe will take on the powers of the currently elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).

If PCCs can be scrapped after just one short term of existence, this represents a massive rethink by the Tories. PCCs were to herald a step change in how the criminal justice system functions and held to account. Our region has been lucky to have some terrific PCCs, not least the tireless Vera Baird QC, PCC for Northumberland, who is a model for the how the post can made to work and work well.

The national elections for PCCs were disappointing with record low voter turnout on election day. Many came to question how well the coalition government had thought through its proposals and convinced the public.

My worry is that this problem might only be repeated again. The government was unconvinced its rolling out PCCs would be stung by relatively low interest in their elections. History may repeat itself with regional mayors.

And there should be serious resistance to anyone not directly elected by the region taking over powers by a PCC that has done so.

But we should also resist imposing any further so-called ‘interim’ mayors until three conditions are satisfied.

First, the northern powerhouse is about empowering a one nation Britain. (Is anyone surprised to see David Cameron so warmly embracing Ed Miliband’s election rhetoric? I think Ed got this right.)

The government should provide roughly equal terms to regional authorities to promote a more level playing field.

At present, the government’s green light to Greater Manchester gives it a head start others may find difficult to make up in the short-term. Anything less than equal terms will lead us closer to patchwork Britain, not One Nation.

Secondly, these roughly equal terms for regional authorities must with clearly specified budgetary controls. If these regional authorities are to become Little Regional Assemblies (remember that I said it first!) like smaller versions of what we see in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, then they must have some fair determination of government funding and its use that allows regions to compete with each other.

My worry is that the government will choose winners up front and others will be forced to lag behind or fight a constant uphill battle.

Devolution will work best when all start from a broader similar starting point. We need more assurances that this will happen.

Finally, I agree with Simon Henig that the people in each region should get a vote on whether or not they want an elected mayor with these powers. Perhaps if voters were asked if they wanted PCCs, they’d vote against having them. And now the government wants them scrapped.

If elected mayors are worth having, then let’s see the full plan for devolved powers and budgetary control followed by a vote. Let the people decide (and include 16 and 17 year olds, too).

Putting mayors and new regional powers in place before elections or even before the legislation makes its way through the House of Commons disadvantages some regions without them like ours at the expense of winners like Greater Manchester selected upfront. This is no way to build a One Nation politics or share the prosperity of London across our blessed northern territory. We won’t be in this together.

But if the government won’t share a similar deal for all regions put to a vote to win a public mandate, you must begin to question their motives and commitment when so ready to scrap flagship, elected regional posts like PCCs virtually overnight.

And this gives even greater pause for careful reflection before leaping ahead with yet another expensive rollout the government might soon come to regret.

Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University

@thom_brooks

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