Earlier this month I made it clear to Nick Clegg and our parliamentarians that there were two issues which still caused great concern amongst Lib Dem councillors and they are very similar. Elected Police Commissioners and Elected Mayors. We will continue to oppose both of them.
The vast majority of the Decentralisation and Localism Bill will be welcomed by me and I suspect most of those in local government but the final 5% – the Mayors – should still be strongly opposed.
I am no Luddite resisting change for the sake of it. When under the control of the Lib Dems for 12 years my city – Liverpool – was in the vanguard of change in technology, governance and service delivery. I oppose elected Mayors for four practical and pragmatic reasons:
Firstly there is no evidence that they have worked. 12 councils have moved to an elected mayor system – 1 has already reverted to a Leader system. This time last year of those 12 councils two, Stoke and Doncaster, were in special measures. They were the only two councils in special measures in England! Some mayoral councils such as that led by our own Dorothy Thornhill have worked wonders and made rapid improvements. But no greater, by and large, than councils with a leader and cabinet.
Secondly, they have not brought new people into the system. London is a classic example of political retreads fighting each other. Four out of the 12 councils have at one time had none-political leaders but Stoke reverted to Labour and Bedford was gained by our own Dave Hodgson when the independent died. As I write this Tower Hamlets is in a real mess within its Labour Party following a successful mayoral ballot there which no major party wanted because they warned that it would be divisive.
Thirdly, of the 11 current Mayors only one (Watford) has a woman Mayor. The mayoral type of contest appeals more to the ‘craggy jawed’ type of leader i.e. a testosterone charged man!
Lastly, there is a clear problem with understanding what area a mayor is supposed to represent. People often quote London but this is totally inappropriate for other areas. Is Boris a Mayor of a region – because Greater London counts as one of the 9 English regions? If so should we in the North West vote for a North West regional mayor? Is he the Mayor of a conurbation? If so should we on Merseyside vote for a Mayor of Merseyside? If he is only the Mayor of the core city how will he be perceived when set against the other districts in the city region which will continue to have council Leaders? It would be like the Mayor of Newham taking over from Boris by virtue of his Newham election.
So every council in the Country except 12 are to be given the right to choose what sort of system they want to have. The logic of treating 12 differently escapes me. But we will not necessarily resist legislation in this regard. If the government decides that the 12 councils should have compulsory referenbda before a mayor is appointed then so be it. We will support the legislation and then oppose the move in the individual referendums that that then take place. If they make existing Leaders into Mayors and then have a ballot we will oppose what would be a constitutional outrage.
Eric Pickles was right yesterday to say that all councils should have the freedom to run themselves and to hold the vision and the authority for their areas. There is no logic in giving more powers to 12 because they choose to have a Mayor and fewer powers if they choose not to. Logic says that all councils should be treated equally – localism says that all councils should be able to choose the form of government that is right for their area.