Paul Linford: The Government is missing the target when it comes to devolution in England

Journal columnist and former political editor Paul Linford says plans for metropolitan mayors do the cause of local democracy no good at all

Leader of the House of Commons William Hague
Leader of the House of Commons William Hague

Whatever else the political year 2014 is remembered for, it will go down in the North East as the year it once again became fashionable to talk about the D-word: Devolution.

Having been kicked into the longest of long grass by the result of the 2004 regional assembly referendum, the outcome of another referendum ten years on brought English devolution swiftly back onto the mainstream political agenda.

Once Scotland had voted to stay in the UK in return for a huge increase in the powers of the Scottish parliament, it was inevitable that the question of whether England and its constituent cities and regions should themselves get new powers would loom large.

Yet although David Cameron and his fellow Tory ministers have certainly talked a lot about devolution over the three months since Scotland voted no, whether they have actually understood the meaning of the word is a different matter.

The essence of devolution, of course, is to bring decision-making as close as possible to the people affected by it - yet the Tories appear to be hung up on two particular responses to the devolution question, neither of which commands any significant support in this part of the world.

The first of those is the idea of forcing those cities and regions which desire greater autonomy to agree to the introduction of all-powerful elected mayors, irrespective of whether or not the people actually want them.

This week, Chancellor George Osborne delivered the strongest signal yet that he will put pressure on regional leaders asking for devolved powers to accept the mayoral model.

Anthony Devlin/PA Wire Chancellor George Osborne
Chancellor George Osborne
 

Greater Manchester, which has agreed to introduce a London-style mayor without holding a referendum, was handed a £1bn package of new powers that gives councillors powers over health and social care budgets, while Sheffield, which has refused to do likewise, was given much weaker powers.

Mr Osborne told The Journal: “I think the whole package that Manchester is getting in terms of control over transport, budgets and the rest does need to have with it a point of accountability, an elected mayor.”

He added: “I think if you want to have the full suite of powers that are normally associated with an elected mayor in almost any city in the world then that is the model of government.”

He is entitled to his view, of course, but to seek to impose a new structure of local and regional government not only without giving the people a say, but actually on condition that they are denied a say, seems to me to be a complete perversion of the democratic principle.

And irrespective of what they may have got out of it financially, the councils of Greater Manchester have done the cause of local democracy absolutely no favours at all by agreeing to such a deal.

But that’s not all. Alongside elected mayors, the other great Tory mantra de nos jours is of course that of ‘English Votes for English Laws.’

Mr Cameron made clear this was his preferred response to the ‘English Question’ in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish referendum vote – but, again, it is an idea which has little support in large parts of England.

William Hague, who included ‘English Votes for English Laws’ in the Tories’ 2001 election manifesto before leading the party to one of its worst-ever defeats, set out a series of options this week as to how the idea could work in practice.

They range from barring Scottish and Northern Irish MPs from any role in English and Welsh legislation, to excluding them from the committee stages of such bills while continuing to allow all MPs a vote on the final reading.

But as Newcastle East MP Nick Brown pointed out, none of this even begins to engage with the debate around greater powers for England’s cities and regions.

Deriding Mr Hague’s proposals as “Tory votes for Tory laws,” he said the government had made “no attempt to address English regional policy more generally.”

It seems reasonably clear to me that what the people of the North East want is not an elected mayor, nor a regional assembly, nor an English Parliament, but simply to see existing councils working more closely together within the combined authority structure, and given the requisite powers and funding to make a difference.

It might not be what Messrs Cameron and Osborne want - but hey, that’s devolution for you.

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