Paul Linford: Metro mayors have no more public appeal than regional assemblies

The Journal's former political editor says George Osborne is trying to impose a system on cities that they have already voted to reject

Lynne Cameron/PA Wire Chancellor George Osborne
Chancellor George Osborne

Ever since the North-East voted by a margin of 4-1 to reject the idea of an elected regional assembly ten years ago this month, it has become the received political wisdom that the issue cannot be reopened.

The referendum result, it is argued, was sufficiently decisive to have put the matter for bed for a generation, if not for all time.

It is primarily for this reason that the recent upsurge of interest in English devolution in the wake of the Scottish referendum vote has not, thus far, resulted in widespread calls for a fresh look at regional assemblies.

Instead, the main debate has been confined to whether there should be ‘English votes for English laws’ as the Tories call it, accompanied by some ill-defined additional powers for so-called ‘city regions.’

But of course, the regional assembly referendum was not the only time voters have been asked for their views on the structures of local and regional governance in the North East over the past 15 years – far from it.

The other nine all concerned the issue of whether particular local authority areas in the region should move to a system of directly-elected mayors on the model pioneered by London.

Only three council areas in the region during that 11-year period voted in favour of the idea: North Tyneside, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, and the last named has since scrapped it.

The other six - Berwick, Sunderland, Sedgefield, Durham, Darlington and most recently Newcastle - all rejected the idea, the latter by a margin of 61% to 38% in 2012.

This thumbs-down by voters – mirrored in many other major cities including Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield – ought perhaps have told the powers-that-be that this was an idea with no more public appeal than that of regional assemblies.

But no. This week, up pops Chancellor George Osborne with a thinly-veiled warning that if regions want devolved powers and funding, they must move towards an elected mayoral structure.

With breathtaking disdain for local opinion, Mr Osborne announced that Manchester – which voted 53% to 46% to reject the idea in 2012 – would now be getting additional powers in return for having agreed to move to a mayoral system alongside nine neighbouring authorities.

And although Prime Minister David Cameron has since denied plans to impose a “one size fits all” structure on Northern cities, both he and the Chancellor have drawn a clear link between accelerated devolution and the introduction of metro mayors.

There are two things that need to be said about this. First, that this kind of carrot-and-stick approach to devolution is not, in fact, devolution at all.

The essence of devolution, surely, is that it puts the power into the hands of the people, rather than Whitehall.

What Mr Osborne is doing, by contrast, is holding a gun to the head of the English regions in an attempt to dictate the future structure of local and regional governance.

Ministers seem oddly incapable of seeing the inherent contradiction in the idea that a region can have devolution - but only on Whitehall’s terms.

But the second thing to say is that elected mayors are emphatically not an answer to the so-called ‘English Question’ currently bedevilling our rulers in the wake of the Scottish vote.

In fact, all they will do is recreate the West Lothian Question in miniature wherever a new mayoral system is introduced.

Just say, for instance, that Newcastle, Gateshead, North and South Tyneside and Sunderland managed to get it together and agreed to create an elected mayor of Tyne and Wear in return for devolved powers over transport

That would mean that the MP for Gateshead would be able to vote in the House of Commons on transport issues affecting Durham North and Hexham, but not on those affecting his own constituency.

There are in fact only three possible answers to the ‘English Question’ and they do not include ‘city regions’ or ‘metro mayors.’

The first is an English Parliament. The second is regional assemblies.

The third is some kind of halfway house between the two – separate devolved parliaments for the North, Midlands and South

alongside a beefed-up Greater London Assembly, perhaps.

It’s a personal view, but given the economic synergies between the three Northern regions, I think the third of these options at least merits further investigation.

Whether ministers are prepared to listen to any views but their own, however, seems very much open to doubt.

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