Will good governance be a casualty of the devolution drive?

Written by

Sean Fielding


Devolution news has been coming in thick and fast of late. Next May, alongside the Mayoral elections already in the cycle (Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, West Yorkshire in our patch alone), there will be elections for a North Yorkshire Mayor, an East Midlands Mayor and a new North East of England Mayor, after devolution deals were signed including a condition to create these new posts.

On top of this concrete progress, talks are progressing seriously in other regions where striking a deal has so far appeared elusive – Lancashire being the most significant of these in the North.

The requirement to accept the creation of an elected Mayor as part of new devolution deals seems to have been relaxed, with both Cheshire and Lancashire successfully resisting such a move thus far.

It’s clear that the government is keen to demonstrate progress on the devolution agenda ahead of next year’s expected general election. While Rishi Sunak’s five pledges are proving elusive, Michael Gove is doing his bit to try and show that the government is still capable of doing at least something.

But if existing governance structures are handed sweeping new powers without a prominent, directly accountable, and mandated figurehead to exercise them, how much democratic legitimacy can they really have?

In the case of Lancashire, the county is resisting an elected Mayor, or even Local Government reorganisation and, as a consequence, the District Councils (which include Lancaster and Preston City Councils amongst others) don’t have a seat at the “Combined County Authority” table.

In Cheshire, the two Cheshire Councils and Warrington are seeking the devolution of cash and powers to a sub-regional “Leader’s Board”.

If a business wanted to bring investment to a devolved region, who would they pick up the phone to in these two scenarios; and who would have the mandate to mediate between member authorities who might come in to conflict when vying for that investment? In Lancashire, Preston and South Ribble’s displeasure at not being “in the room” is already causing public disagreements.

But elsewhere, there has been criticism of the Mayoral Combined Authority (MCA) model in recent weeks too, this time from the West of England Mayor, Dan Norris. Last week he spoke out, saying that “devolution through metro mayors with combined authorities doesn’t work”. His frustration stems from the fact that his Cabinet is made up of council leaders from different political parties, resulting in stalemate over decisions about policy and where funding is allocated.

In the north MCAs typically have a clear majority of politicians from a single party around the table. This has allowed any disagreements to be dealt with privately, rather than messily in public. But with new MCAs set to go live next year, we may see similar problems heading our way.

Even in trailblazing Greater Manchester, the Green Party (now the main opposition on Manchester City Council and a growing presence in Trafford) are leading calls for a London-style Greater Manchester assembly. They cite their perception of a democratic deficit with 10 indirectly elected Council Leaders exercising vast powers over 2.8 million people and little scrutiny.

So, while we may see more devolution deals this side of a general election the debate around the ‘right’ sort of devolution will continue. Labour has promised ‘radical devolution’ which could include fiscal devolution to combined authorities. Without a rigorous structure in place to hold combined authorities to account, regions may struggle to prise the Treasury’s hands off significant wodges of cash.

Sean Fielding is associate director at Cavendish. He is a former executive member of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and is currently a Labour councillor in Bolton.

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