Saturday, April 14, 2012

It's regional devolution, Jim, but not as we knew it

Writing last Saturday, the Newcastle Journal's regional affairs correspondent Adrian Pearson opened his column with the words: "If an elected mayor is the answer, what could possibly have been the question in North Tyneside?"

Well, allow me to have at least a stab at providing an answer.

There are plenty of cynical explanations. Elected mayors were originally the brainchild of the Tory cabinet minister Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s, and were seen by some at the time as an attempt to circumvent the power of high-spending, left-wing Labour councils.

Indeed, as Adrian pointed out in his column, this was precisely what later happened in North Tyneside, where Labour's stranglehold on local politics was finally thwarted by a succession of Conservative mayors in what became a recipe for decade-long infighting.

By the time New Labour came to enact Heseltine's proposed reforms, though, the agenda had changed somewhat. I believe Tony Blair's primary motivation for implementing elected mayors was simply to try to revive flagging voter interest in local government by, well, sexing it up.

In that sense, it was no more than a reflection of the trend towards ‘presidential’ politics that reached its apogee under Mr Blair, and which continues, though to a slightly lesser degree, under David Cameron.

The sorts of arguments that were heard then - "increased accountability through increased visibility" - are still used to promote the elected mayoral idea today - but a decade or more on, the debate has now become much more bound up with economic development and in particular with redressing regional economic disparities.

It is now very much part and parcel of the "city regions" concept that emerged from the wreckage of the regional government debate after the North East Assembly referendum debacle, with elected mayors seen as a way of giving their areas the kind of clout that properly-empowered assemblies might once have exercised.

This argument is already very much to the fore in the debate over whether there should be an elected mayor of Newcastle, for instance.

The city has yet to even make a decision on the issue - but already people such as Lewis Goodall of the regional policy think-tank IPPR North are talking openly about a directly-elected leader or 'metro mayor' not just for Newcastle but for the entire Tyneside conurbation.

"To really counterbalance the power of London, mayors need to have real powers to forge the destiny of their area," he wrote in Good Friday's Journal.

"Over time, this might mean a move towards a metro mayor for the wider city area - not just Newcastle but the surrounding conurbation too, with powers over economic development and transport."

To those of us with long memories, what is particularly interesting about that comment is that it was precisely those powers that the proponents of an elected regional assembly demanded - and failed to get - prior to the 2004 referendum.

I have always believed that had Mr Blair been more inclined to hand such powers to a regional body, the public might well have been more inclined to vote for it.

But regional government was only ever a means towards the greater end of tackling the North-South prosperity divide.

And as Lewis Goodall also pointed out in his piece, this is still very much with us, with the government planning to spend £2,700 per head on infrastructure projects in London compared to £5 a head in the North-East.

Looming over the whole debate over elected mayors is the larger-than-life figure of London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Not only has he enhanced the ‘accountability’ argument in favour of mayors by being a highly visible elected figurehead, he has also enhanced the economic argument by using his undoubted clout to further deepen that imbalance.

Mr Cameron’s own decision to axe regional development agency One NorthEast didn’t help matters either – but a gaggle of elected mayors flying the flag for the region could go some way towards filling that gap.

It isn’t regional devolution as we once knew it, Jim, but it might turn out to be the best form of regional devolution on offer.

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1 comment:

Independent England said...