Is this Michael Gove’s idea of “levelling up” through devolution?
“There are concerns over whether there are enough mechanisms to hold powerful local politicians to account day to day. In areas that are staunchly Labour or consistently Tory, would there be enough incentives for mayors or governors to deliver for their constituents, or will they just be able to cling on for term after term?”
American-style governors could level up England
Henry Zeffman www.thetimes.co.uk
Swathes of rural England could elect powerful American-style governors under Michael Gove’s plans to “level up” the country.
Devolution is at the heart of his attempts to flesh out Boris Johnson’s domestic slogan, with an ambition for every part of England to have a local leader with equivalent powers to London by the end of the decade.
Residents of some rural areas where the term mayor is deemed inappropriate could elect governors instead.
The proposal is contained in a draft of the levelling up white paper being written by Gove’s new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Though Downing Street announced in May that the paper would be published by the end of this year, it has been delayed to early next year, The Times has learnt.
Government figures insist that the delay is simply a reflection of a busy few weeks of announcements before the Christmas break, though there have been tensions about how far-reaching the paper’s proposals should be.
One idea being considered by Gove but yet to receive the green light is a statutory levelling-up quango, which would monitor every aspect of government policy for its impact on regional inequalities.
Plans to “extend, deepen and simplify” devolution, though, are fundamental to Gove’s aims. He has identified an absence of local empowerment as a core reason for regional disparities: the UK is one of the most centralised major economies. Top-down government, Whitehall sources believe, has failed to utilise local knowledge and meant that policy can often benefit commuters or new arrivals in a local area rather than its long-standing residents.
London has had mayors since 2000 but a new generation of Conservative mayors, such as Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands, has helped some in government warm to extending devolution.
Gove wants the devolution deals to cover areas with a strong identity and community, which in practice means many will be county deals. Any area negotiating devolved powers will have to have a population of at least 500,000.
The devolution deals will see counties or other areas given more powers over policy areas such as transport, housing or health, and given money to deliver the services that would otherwise be run from Westminster.
Not every area will be forced to have a directly elected mayor, or governor, but those that agree to do so will be given the most powers.
A government source told The Times: “Levelling up is about empowering local leadership and allowing communities to take back control. The white paper will set out ambitious plans on devolution so we can see more Andy Streets and Ben Houchens delivering for communities across the country.” The plan for a new tier of local leaders is likely to meet resistance from councillors wedded to the existing system.
An idea being considered is to form a levelling-up quango that would monitor the progress of levelling up against a series of core missions, such as improving living standards and boosting local pride. The independent oversight body would take inspiration from the Office for Budget Responsibility, which provides independent analysis of public finances.
The body would also have an important role collating and publishing new data on regional disparities in the UK.
Michael Gove’s plans for the levelling up white paper make clear his belief that wider devolution will help him give meaning to Boris Johnson’s slogan (Henry Zeffman writes).
It is, in effect, a bet that expansion of elected mayors, and governors, will reduce regional inequalities and drive growth around the country. Whether the smattering of metro mayors supports that is arguable.
The idea is that devolving powers to locally-accountable leaders will improve local quality of life, as well as giving somebody with a high profile the ability to promote an area in Westminster.
If the eventual model for the whole country is London, then the government can point to the London Plan, which under three mayors of two parties has given coherence to the revitalisation and regeneration of large parts of the capital. The most prominent mayors have brought a new kind of civic leadership too: be that Andy Burnham in Manchester rebuking the government for its regional tiers system or Johnson throwing himself into the hosting of the 2012 Olympics.
Ben Houchen, the Tory Tees Valley mayor is praised by party colleagues in Westminster for turning a traditional Labour area deep blue. He has brought his local airport back into public ownership.
But there are questions about local enthusiasm. Turnout in the last London election was 42 per cent; in Manchester 35 per cent; in the West Midlands 31 per cent.
There are concerns over whether there are enough mechanisms to hold powerful local politicians to account day to day. In areas that are staunchly Labour or consistently Tory, would there be enough incentives for mayors or governors to deliver for their constituents, or will they just be able to cling on for term after term?