Empower regional mayors ‘to free civil service for Brexit’

Written by Richard Johnstone on 8 May 2017 in News

New combined authority chiefs could improve services and boost local economies if offered new menu of powers, says think tank

Whitehall has been urged to use the election of new combined authority mayors to devolve more powers in order to free up civil service capacity for Brexit.

Following Thursday’s election of the six metro mayors in England, who now cover a third of England’s population, the Institute for Public Policy Research North called on all parties in the general election to set out a menu of additional powers, coupled with plans for greater scrutiny.

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Thursday’s elections saw mayors elected in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Tees Valley, the Liverpool City Region, the West of England and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

The Conservatives won four out of six of the posts, including the tightly-contested West Midlands race, where former John Lewis boss Andy Street beat Labour candidate Sion Simon, and the Tees Valley post, won by Ben Houchen.

The party was also successful in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough contest, won by James Palmer, and the West of England, where Tim Bowles will be mayor.

Former health secretary Andy Burnham won the Greater Manchester mayoralty for Labour, while former Liverpool Lord Mayor and Labour MP Steve Rotheram took the Liverpool City Regional role for the party.

The mayors, working with the regional combined authorities, have powers in a range of areas. These cover devolved housing budgets, transport planning powers, and responsibility for skills spending, including localisation of the successor scheme to the Work Programme. Greater Manchester, which was the first combined authority to receive these powers from Whitehall in 2014, also has local control of health spending.

IPPR North director Ed Cox said that giving the mayors additional powers over education, health and employment, with strong local checks and balances, could then “free the civil service to focus on Brexit”.

“Together the London mayor and England’s new metro mayors will represent almost twenty million people, far more than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Working together, they will be a powerful voice for England,” he said.

“Using ‘soft powers’, they can act as advocates for their city-regions on the global stage, helping win investment and broker trade globally," he continued.

“But while these soft powers are important, to really compete mayors need the kind of fiscal powers enjoyed by American mayors, German federal states and French régions. Even London only controls 7% of the tax it raises, compared to 50% in New York City.”

Cox highlighted that following a House of Lords discussion of an IPPR North report on Brexit and the North, Brexit secretary David Davis has pledged to meet the north’s Metro Mayors once they were elected.

Other areas of government should also commit to working with the mayors by preparing plans to devolve additional powers from Whitehall, accompanied by new scrutiny arrangements, he said.

Options set out in an IPPR report published before the election was called ranged from additional freedom over public spending in an area to greater retention of tax revenues and the ability to introduce new levies. These would need to be matched to governance reforms, the report said, such as the introduction of a local public accounts committees to scrutinise devolved spending, and increased public involvement in decision-making such as citizens’ panels or local referenda. Changes could even include to a proportional representation system for council elections or the introduction of a second chamber in local government to represent local business and community interests.

“The next government must reboot devolution with a proper process for deal-making, with a clear but flexible ‘menu’ of powers in return for an accountability ‘price’, Cox said.

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