A leading Labour mayor has suggested that Devon and Cornwall should be next to get an elected regional leader, but the idea has been rejected by people from the counties.
Edward Oldfield www.cornwalllive.com
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester who challenged the Government over lockdown funding, made the suggestion during a discussion on devolution at the Labour conference in Brighton.
The idea for a metro mayor covering the peninsula was greeted with big cheers in the hall, according to political journalist Jennifer Williams.
But replies to her tweet about the proposal were less enthusiastic, with one asking: “A single mayor? How would they decide how to correctly add jam and cream when the mayor had scones?”
And the suggestion was rejected outright by Dick Cole, councillor for St Enoder on Cornwall Council and the leader of Mebyon Kernow, the left-of-centre Cornish nationalist party.
Mr Cole said: “Andy Burnham is completely wrong to suggest that there should be a metro mayor for Cornwall, linked on a geographical basis with the English county of Devon.
“Cornwall needs proper devolution, we need a national assembly or parliament like the other Celtic parts of the UK, like Scotland and Wales. I would remind Andy Burnham that 20 years ago 50,000 signed declarations calling for a Cornish Assembly, which were totally ignored by the Labour Party at that time.
“It is a terrible shame that Cornwall has not achieved devolution, not least through their lack of interest, and perhaps now is the time for them to back serious calls for proper Cornish devolution.”
The issue of central government handing over more power to local authorities is likely to form part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda, now in the hands of Communities Secretary Michael Gove who took on responsibility in the prime minister’s recent cabinet reshuffle.
The Government is expected to publish a white paper setting out its plans before Christmas, but it is unclear whether they will include creating more regional combined authorities, led by ‘metro mayors’.
Cornwall already has some devolved responsibilities granted in 2015, giving its single-tier council more control over areas including health and social care, transport, employment and skills, and business support.
Devon has a mixture of top-tier councils for Plymouth and Torbay, and a two-tier system of the county council and eight districts covering the rest of the area.
In Torbay, voters scrapped the post of elected mayor after a decade in 2016, and opted instead for a leader and cabinet system.
On economic development, Devon is lumped together with Somerset in the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, one of 38 in England set up to lead economic growth.
Its role includes handing out government cash to support road building across the region.
Plymouth Labour MP Luke Pollard, the Shadow Environment Secretary, said mayors like Andy Burnham had shown how they could stand up for their region, but he was unsure whether adding another politician into the mix was the answer for Devon and Cornwall.
The MP for Sutton and Devonport called for a debate about securing more funding for the region, and added: “Instead of creating a new politician, let’s get the current politicians that we have to stop voting for cuts and start campaigning for us to get our fair share of funding.”
He said children in the South West received £300 per pupil less than the national average and the region was “bottom of the national league” for transport investment.
East Devon Labour councillor Paul Millar has called for the Greater Exeter region to get a metro mayor, to take strategic decisions on issues such as public transport in the wider area.
The two-tier system of local government in Devon is believed to be next in line for reorganisation, following the streamlining of councils in Dorset and Somerset.
The closest regional mayor is Labour’s Dan Norris, elected in May as the Metro Mayor for the West of England Combined Authority, covering Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire.
The authority was set up in 2017 and says it has secured a total of £1.15billion of new funding for the region to deliver decisions using devolved powers on homes, transport, skills and the economy.
An influential report by the UK’s infrastructure advisers has urged ministers to overhaul the current funding system and give local authorities five-year infrastructure budgets instead of having to compete for funding.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) report said: “Failure to empower local authorities to deliver local infrastructure will lead the Government to fail in its levelling up goals.”
It recommended streamlining around 15 sources of funding into two, creating five-year flexible budgets based on population and network size, plus a targeted scheme for areas with poor transport connections or the potential for new industries.
It suggested around £6billion a year could be made available for local transport investment outside London in the next five years, up by 40 per cent compared to last year.
Commissioner Bridget Rosewell said: “Levelling up cannot be done from Whitehall.
“Every English town faces a different set of challenges and opportunities and local leaders are best placed to develop strategies to address these.
“Competing against other councils for multiple pots of cash creates a focus on the short term, continual uncertainty, and burns up staff time.
“Local councils need to be empowered to deliver transformational plans for the future and held accountable for doing so.”
Councillor David Renard, economy spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: “Reducing and simplifying the number of funding streams available to councils and providing long-term certainty will help councils plan and deliver better transport and connectivity across the country.”