The principal argument against Elected Mayors is that it puts too much power in the hands of one person and that they will inevitably become remote and unaccountable. Rather than just accepting this, the Conservative Government are now pursuing the idea of an Elected Mayor with power across, not just one Council area but across a number of Councils. This would be on a similar basis to the deal that they have made recntly with Greater Manchester. The sweetner/bribe is that the regions will have greater access/control over money, currently controlled by the Government, that is spent in their regions. So we are not necessarily talking new money but perhaps a greater say over how funds are spent that were destined for the region anyway. In some ways this would be a good thing. It would stop Government misappropriating funds like they did in 2013, when nearly £200million of EU funding, allocated to Yorkshire, was sent to Scotland instead. I guess this was part of the strategy to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. The problem is that instead of an illegitimate Government elected by 37% of the electorate deciding the fate of that money there will be a single person, a Mayor, somehow representing millions of people, deciding how it is spent. We have not necessarily made any progress here!
In West Yorkshire and the wider Leeds City Region there seems to be an almost resigned air amongst the Council Leaderships and a feeling that we must bow to the inevitable. So the West Yorkshire Combined Authority has produced a number of 'Asks' to central Government including
- the ability raise funding through a 10 year infrastructire precept to improve public transport
- power to levy and retain business rates,
- devolved budgets and responsibility for major roads including motorways
- Control of a new £500 million Housing and Regeneration Investment Fund
- Powers to incentivise developers to bring forward strategic sites and prevent land banking; and to bring empty listed building back into use
- Responsibility for local energy generation and efficiency
- Responsibility for managing European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) in the same way as London.
These are just some examples of the 'asks' and they are generally positive ones. The problem is that having responsibility for these new budgets will also mean having responsibility for any cuts handed down by central government. It also requires a degree of trust and a belief that Government won't disproportionately cut devolved budgets particularly in areas where the Conservatives have little electoral support.
What has been dismally lacking from the 'asks' from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority is anything about improving governance and accountability for the Elected Mayor, that Government want to foist on us. In London the Mayor is accountable to the Greater London Assembly which has a role in scrutinising the Mayor's decisions. With a 2/3rds majority the Assembly can amend the Mayors strategies and budgets. The Assembly is elected by the Additional Member System so the number of seats are roughly proportional to the votes cast. If we are being pushed into a less democratic Mayoral model then we need to ensure that we have a new representative body to make sure the Mayor is more accountable. It should also be elected by a system of proportional representation. If West Yorkshire Leaders are opposed to creating a new West Yorkshire Assembly or Leeds City Region Assembly then, at the very least, we need to ensure our own local Councils have an effective scrutinising and vetoing role over any Elected Mayor's budgets or plans. This should not be the preserve of Council Leaders alone or a small group of 'the great and the good'. All elected Councillors should have a role in debating and amending any potential Mayor's plans. Preferably at the same time and in the same place each year.
Reviewing our own Councils electoral arrangements is long overdue, and this should be considered at the same time that we look at establishing any new potential Mayoral arrangements. With West Yorkshire Councils having elections 3 years out of every 4, we are in a state of almost constant electoral warfare. This is not good for governance and detracts from time Councillors can give to Council work and community focussed activity. Like York, London Boroughs and many other Councils we should have 'all out' elections in West Yorkshire on a 4 year cycle and ensure that these elections do not clash with General Elections. This will help ensure that we retain a focus on local issues and concerns. In May, when we had General, Local and Parish Elections all on the same day the General Election naturally dominated political discourse. We also have the opportunity to elect Local Councillors through a system of proportional representation. If it is good enough for Scottish Councils then why not English ones as well?
As with all negotiations you have to be prepared to walk away and to recognise when what is on offer from the Government is simply not worth it. We do have to overcome the Conservatives desire to centralise power with a Mayoral model but we also have to democratise our own local electoral arrangements and drag them into the 21st Century.