Elected mayors: we hardly knew ye
When Theresa May took over as Prime Minister, there were murmurings across the North that the Northern Powerhouse agenda could be scrapped, and, with Theresa May hoping to assert strong leadership for her premiership, it was expected that many of David Cameron and George Osborne’s flagship policies such as devolution would be reversed. Some of these fears were quashed when the position of Northern Powerhouse Minister was given to Andrew Percy MP, but this week’s story that Theresa May could ditch elected mayors is yet another worry for business and elected officials across the North.
The reasoning behind Theresa May’s motives is the fear that powerful elected mayors could form strong powerbases away from Westminster, giving potential Mayors such as Andy Burnham platforms which will noticeably benefit Labour who have a firm grip on many Northern cities. At a time when the Labour Party is in danger of tearing itself apart, the elected mayor positions, which are of interest to marginal Labour MPs such as Hilary Benn and Caroline Flint, offer a lifeline to Labour who can build even more support across large swathes of the North. However, what has become clear is that Mrs May is not completely against mayors or devolution for that matter. In a pragmatic move, some devolution deals may still go ahead but without mayors, while other regions may get to opt out of the elected mayoral model prior to the 2017 elections. To date, many city regions have been against the encroachment of elected mayors because local authorities do not wish to hand control to one elected figure. Therefore, Mrs May’s policy of handing devolution deals to cities without mayors could prevent Labour gaining a stronghold whilst keeping local authorities happy – a clever move indeed.
It looks unlikely then that Mrs May will scrap Osborne’s flagship policy, nevertheless, the focus on the north may shift to encompass the whole country with Mrs May wanting to boost productivity. Clearly, Theresa May wishes to impose her own devolution agenda and Lord Heseltine has confirmed that for those councils that do want a mayor, “they have got to show that they have the management and direct accountability to do the man-sized job that we are offering you”. Devolution deals are likely to continue but the shape and form of them will depend on the new Prime Minister’s approach. Evidently, the Conservative Party is strengthening its grip on local authorities and devolution whilst Labour undergoes infighting and turmoil. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn’s train fiasco, devolution is not likely to derail any time soon.