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Government / Local politics

What is really going on with England's devolution policy?

Last week, the Labour party named Andy Burnham as its candidate for the job of Greater Manchester Metro Mayor. At the time I tweeted:

The reason I mention this is because over the weekend the Times published a story (£) headlined, “May to abandon Osborne’s plan for regional mayors”.

Ah well. It was a nice dream while it lasted, wasn’t it, Andy?

Actually, my snark aside, Burnham almost certainly will get a chance to run for election (though whether he wins is a different question). The deals that have already reached a certain point look set to go ahead.

But what point that is – and which deals have passed it – is surprisingly hard to pin down. As to what happens in areas that have yet to agree a deal, well, that’s an open question.

The gist of the Times story is that, while prime minister Theresa May isn’t planning to do away with devolution entirely, she’s really not loving the idea of metro mayors. This is apparently on the grounds that they risk giving Labour a way of digging itself out of its current hole:

She is also said to be nervous that the policy would give a platform to Labour moderates such as Andy Burnham, the former shadow home secretary, who is hoping to be elected mayor of Manchester next year.

(…)

The posts are seen as attractive for opponents of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, who are rapidly becoming marginalised within the parliamentary Labour party and are looking for new powerbases to save the moderate wing of the party. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is already seen as having formed such a powerbase.

How much truth there is to this is not entirely clear. Lord Heseltine – one of the architects of the devolution policy pursued by the Cameron government – told the Today Programme he wasn’t buying it, not least because May is currently on holiday.

And over the last week, op-eds in the prime minister’s name have appeared in the Birmingham Mail and Yorkshire Post, re-iterating her support for at least some of the new metro mayors. Here’s a quote from the latter:

We’ve started with a major devolution deal for Sheffield City Region, and their new mayor will be elected next May, giving people there a powerful new voice. I want the government to work with people here to bring the benefits of devolution to other parts of Yorkshire too.

So – it doesn’t sound like the government is cooling on devolution as a whole. But could it be abandoning the requirement that all deals include elected mayors?

I asked the Department for Communities & Local Government for some details as to where the programme stood: what deals had been signed, what were still being negotiated and so forth. Here’s what they told me:

“Devolution deals will continue in the usual way. Elected mayors remain the best way to make them work.”

This, while not much of an answer to the question I’d actually asked, is quite an interesting statement. When George Osborne (remember him?) was around, the line was simple: no mayor, no deal. Whatever else it did, that created a level of certainty as to which deals were happening. If an area hadn’t agreed a metro mayor, well, we knew it wasn’t getting a deal.

The phrase “the best way”, though, implies that there are other ways: suddenly there’s wriggle room. That said, this is based on a one line statement, and it’s possible I’m reading too much into it. (My suspicion, for what little it’s worth, is that the DCLG press office isn’t 100 per cent sure that policy hasn’t changed, so they’re hedging very slightly until they know.)

As to what deals definitely are going to happen – well, that’s not entirely clear either. The DCLG spokesperson says that 10 deals have been – their word – “agreed”:

Greater Manchester, Cornwall, Sheffield City Region, the North East, Tees Valley, Liverpool City Region, West Midlands, West of England, Greater Lincolnshire and East Anglia.

But no one seriously thinks that the Greater Manchester deal (which is all but certain to continue) is in the same state as the West of England one (which came much later, and in which some of the authorities are still kicking up a stink). It’s therefore difficult to know if “agreed” really means “absolutely, definitely going to happen”.

After all, the government has put out excitable statements whenever it’s agreed a deal, but been rather more reticent about telling us when one’s fallen apart. And experience teaches that things can and do change after deals are announced.  To give just one example: the East Anglia deal is not the East Anglia deal that Osborne announced in his last budget. The March version included Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. By June, however, the latter two had broken away in pursuit of their own deal – one which is notably not on the DCLG’s list – leaving Norfolk and Suffolk to go it alone.


So will all 10 of those deals happen? Probably. But not definitely – and whether other deals will follow, with or without mayors, remains to be seen.

That Yorkshire Post quote suggests that Theresa May is at least paying lip-service to support for devolution. But right now, that’s all it is. If I were Leeds – the one major English city not covered by a devolution deal – I would be getting nervous that I’d missed the boat.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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