Emma was delighted to speak at the second public meeting for the Campaign against an Elected Mayor for the North-East Combined Authority held at the Royal Station hotel on Saturday. The public meeting was supported by the regional trade unions UNITE, GMB and UNISON, included contributions from a range of MPs, Councillors and other interested parties from across the North East.
The campaign was launched over concerns about the undemocratic imposition of an elected executive mayor by the Government in the North East devolution deals.
Whilst devolution is welcome, imposing an elected mayor as part of the condition of any devolution deal is not. The mayor would cover an area running from Bishop Auckland to Berwick, not only are there growing concerns that the public are being denied any say on whether they want a mayor or not but also concerns around the vague nature of the details regarding the proposed mayor’s powers and accountability.
The North East Combined Authority leadership board will meet on May 13 to decide whether to accept the deal. The government deadline for a decision is May 16.
You can read Emma’s speech below:
Friends, since we last met just two months ago, there has been a tangible temperature change in attitudes towards the Devolution deals throughout the country. The voices of dissent are getting louder as the Government’s insistence on the issue of elected Mayors is becoming a stumbling block in a number of Devolution deals. The cracks in the NECA deal have become caverns since Gateshead rejected the deal and Durham have deferred a decision.
But they are not alone in their reservations.
Just days after the Chancellor stood up in the House to deliver his Budget Speech in March, declaring triumphantly that his Government had agreed deals with the West of England and the authorities of Greater Lincolnshire and a “single powerful East Anglia Combined Authority, headed by an elected mayor with almost £1 billion of new investment”, the Conservative administered, Cambridgeshire county council voted overwhelmingly – by 64 votes to zero – not to accept the East Anglian plans. Around the same time, another Tory run Council, Hampshire, withdrew its support for a deal in Solent while Cumbria county council recently turned down a devolution offer.
Of the 38 devolution proposals put forward from cities, towns and counties across the UK, only 10 have materialised into plans. Many fell at the first hurdle because they disagreed with the Government’s insistence on a directly elected Mayor.
The Chancellor declared in his Budget speech that the “the devolution revolution is taking hold” but it would be a more accurate to say of the current state of the deals, that it isn’t a revolution it’s a rebellion.
A recent National Audit Office report gave weight to the legitimate criticisms coming up time-and-time-again in the Devolution deals, namely the insistence of an elected Mayor, local geography, lack of transparency and accountability and more importantly lack of public consultation.
You all know as I do that the whole point of devolution is to move away from over-centralised governance, to award more powers to local areas, to create more accountability, to improve the democratic process, and to open up a dialogue between central Government and local government about what will work best for an area to bring decision making closer to its people.
Deals have been sold on a false promise that devolution would be a bottom-up process based on those principles, yet the Government has taken a heavy-handed, top-down, dictatorial approach.
Elected mayors are an unprecedented constitutional innovation for areas that are both urban and rural. It is an untried, untested concept which is likely to be democratically remote.
Councils across England have made clear they are uneasy about or don’t want elected Mayors, the DCLG select committee says elected mayors are not an easy fit for non- metropolitan areas and most importantly the public don’t seem too keen on them either.
The Government knows this, so figure we won’t bother asking them- if we want Mayors, we will have to impose them. Take an elected Mayor or no deal- it’s staggeringly undemocratic-in fact it is blackmail and a perfect illustration of how this Government’s version of devolution is really about delegation.
Many Councils have opted for deals and accepted a Mayor as part of it in the hope they can negotiate with the Treasury at some later date to gain more powers- but whereas the Mayor would by then, enshrined in statute and a permanent fixture on the political landscape, any promised further negotiation, could-and probably will- given this government’s track record, be reneged upon. The only certainty therefore in this deal is the Mayor.
We all want devolution but this Government is making it very difficult for many Councillors to enter into the deals with confidence or without the feeling that somewhere along the line, they are being fleeced.
There is so much smoke and mirrors—giving with one hand and taking away with the other. There is huge unease at the speed with which the deals are being pushed through. And there is too much pressure on local authorities to develop and complete the necessary work to set up the combined authority before they have had a chance to consult their councillors, let alone the public.
Places such as Manchester have had half a decade to progress their deals, but the councils in the NECA deals and elsewhere have been expected to process the deals in a matter of months.
Why will the Government not give those councils adequate time to allow the process to be democratic and fair?
There is no real fiscal devolution here. Cuts will continue to be made to local authority budgets, yet councils will be expected to support a combined authority with reduced resources and capacity. Draft deals have only been signed because council leaders who genuinely care about their areas want real devolution and want to make it work. For that, they need a Government who want the same thing, but I fear that this Government do not.
When Labour was in power in Scotland and Wales, we achieved real devolution. We did not rush things through at lightning speed, and we did not expect huge decisions to be made that would affect communities and governance for decades. We had robust public consultation, and we would not have introduced new tiers of governance without allowing time for scrutiny and due diligence. We certainly would not have conducted devolution veiled in secrecy behind closed doors, or imposed last-minute changes from the centre.
The sad truth is that the appetite for devolution among councils and the public is incredibly strong, but this Government are failing to harness that or, as noted in a recent National Audit Office report, clearly articulate what exactly they are trying to achieve through these deals. The upshot is that we, local authorities and, most importantly, members of the public, on whom such deals will impact, do not know what the Governmentare trying to achieve. Yet again, we are seeing a masterclass in undemocratic process, which is leaving councils feeling like they are engaged in a Faustian pact.
We must not allow the Government to bully and scaremonger their way through the deals on the basis that if we don’t sign up we’ll get nothing, We must urge the Government to come clean about the real purpose of the deals and explain how they serve the interests of the public, rather than themselves.