The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill (CLGD) featured in the Queen’s speech and received its second reading in the House of Lords on 8 June 2015. It allows for the introduction of new forms of governance based on Mayors operating between central and local government. This initiative should not be viewed in isolation. Observers of local government will have noticed that there has been an emerging campaign to promote the reinvigoration of local authorities. Towards the end of the previous Parliament (2010-15) the Communities and Local Government Select Committee supported the principle of fiscal devolution for England on the grounds that it would promote economic growth and called upon the government to devise a framework for fiscal devolution to local authorities. Similar calls for a strengthening of local government have come from the Local Government Association who claim, perhaps rather extravagantly, that following such a path could attract £80 billion investment, lead to the building of half a million homes, and deliver savings of £15 billion in the local government sector (A new blueprint for devolution, Local Government Association (2015)).
Of course, the problem has been that the pronounced asymmetry in representative governance caused by devolution becomes increasingly striking as increased powers, including significant revenue raising powers, go to Scotland post referendum (see Scotland Bill 2015-16). The attempt to draw on other constitutional models to produce a comparable system of government for England through the introduction of a federal system is regarded as impractical, as quite apart from the financial implications and complications involved it would have to confront the enormous disparity in population distribution (England 55 million, Scotland 5.3, Wales 3.5, NI 1.9) which would tend to make England predominant in any federal union.
There may, indeed, be good reasons for strengthening local government and for devolving powers downwards if the task is approached consistently and fairly, but the strategy which is currently being adopted can be called into question on several grounds.
The first point is to stress that the proposed forms of revised governance featured in the original agreement between Chancellor Osborn and the Labour politicians representing existing councils appear limited in scope, particularly in comparison to devolution. The Manchester Mayor and authority ranging over Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan will be responsible for an £8 billion budget including a devolved consolidated transport budget, with a multi-year settlement. This will be coupled with responsibility for franchised bus services. The Mayor will also have powers over strategic planning and control of a new £300 million investment fund. Additional powers will include responsibility for devolved support budgets and control of apprenticeship grants. As with the London Mayor, once elected, political oversight will be provided by the scrutiny committee of the combined authority which will be empowered to reject spending plans by a two-thirds majority. In terms of remit, functions and powers this new set up resembles the revised London wide arrangements introduced in 2000 and in some respects the previous Metropolitan Counties. Apart from sharing the characteristic of operating between central and local government the London wide arrangements were not equivalent to the devolved parliament/assemblies and executives in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast (all of which now have law-making powers). The London Mayor also has a strategic role and his or her functions are narrowly defined. The main aim was to deliver a replacement for the Greater London Council, abolished under the Local Government Act 1985. Without law making or tax raising powers it can be argued that the redistribution of powers to the new city regions might turn out to be yet another reshuffling of the pack in terms of powers and functions and much more like a return to the equivalent of the not much lamented Metropolitan County Councils.
Second, this change is not a popularly inspired general initiative but is the result of private negotiations between the Chancellor, George Osborne, and the leaders of the local councils forming the Manchester conurbation. Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the Manchester electorate in a referendum held under the Localism Act 2011 rejected the idea of an elected City Mayor in 2012. The first city region mayoral elections are due to take place in early 2017. The newly formed Manchester wide authority will be led in the interim (until the first Mayor is elected) by a Labour politician (Tony Lloyd) selected by civil leaders. Further, the CLGD bill has been drafted as an enabling statute which makes its provisions subject to the approval of Secretary of State in each case for the election of a revised form of metropolitan regional governance based upon the introduction of directly elected mayors or on the formation of combined authorities for county areas.
Third, given past experience, it is surprising that in introducing this bill the government has failed to set out the precise extent of the proposal but rather defends the piecemeal introduction of this new form of governance for England. In opening the debate the minister stressed: ‘Nothing is being imposed. Where there is a request for an ambitious devolution of a suite of powers to a combined authority, there must be a metro mayor, but no city will be forced to have a mayor and the powers that come with it. No county will be forced to make any changes of governance and to have the powers that can come with such governance changes.’ We are immediately reminded that as a response to devolution the Labour government made a half-hearted attempt to introduce a weak form of regional government for England. This initiative was to be achieved in stages, commencing with the North East of England, but it was abandoned at the first hurdle after the prototype for the new form of regional government failed to gain more than 20% in the referendum held in 2004. If this bill seeks to launch a pivotal initiative in devolved local government for England why not allow the entire English electorate to decide the question in a referendum, and then, subject to the result, proceed on a systematic national basis to implement the scheme. The alternative which only allows favoured regions to have devolved government is profoundly undemocratic and it deprives many parts of England equivalent forms of democratic accountability.
In sum, the initiative for local government reform on the basis of this system of city wide government are a modest and sporadic response to growing demands for greater local autonomy. The trend is being spurred on by developments in Scotland and the other devolved parts of the United Kingdom, with the pressure to act understandably strongest in the North of England. Any claim by the Conservative government elected in May 2015 that it is intent on granting enhanced devolution, whether under the existing framework of local government or under the revised model currently before Parliament, must be assessed in the light of an overarching narrative of central-local government relations under successive government over 30 years. This narrative has been guided by a desire to impose rigid controls on expenditure. It has often been argued (e.g. by Professor Martin Loughlin) that the legal restrictions imposed have suffocated the institutional autonomy of local councils. Although we are yet to find out the detail of the proposals for local government under the new legislation it is clear that the current reforms will be introduced against a backdrop of an extremely challenging economic environment in the public sector. There is widespread uncertainty raised by the prospect of cuts in expenditure to local government which, in turn, will lead to cuts in services for the most vulnerable in society. The, as yet, unanswered question now is – will any modified form of local government, lacking revenue raising powers, be granted genuine autonomy as part of this new local devolution?
Peter Leyland is Emeritus Professor of Public Law London Metropolitan University
(Suggested citation: P Leyland, ‘Devolution, Greater Manchester and the Revitalisation of Local Government’ UK Const. L. Blog (29th Jun 2015) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))