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Elected Mayors

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered elected mayors outside city regions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. This is not a debate about the merits of devolution; I am a passionate advocate for devolution. Over the past few years, local government has proven itself to be more efficient, innovative and accountable than central Government. This is a debate about how, not whether, we should devolve power, and whether it is appropriate for the Government to impose a one-size-fits-all form of devolution designed specifically for cities on counties and non-metropolitan areas. It is a debate on whether the public should have a right to choose how they are governed, as well as who they are governed by.

My constituency, Ellesmere Port and Neston, is governed by Cheshire West and Chester Council, which, along with Cheshire East Council and Warrington Borough Council, forms part of the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership. Cheshire and Warrington is not a metropolitan area or a city region. It does not have a single urban centre. It is made up of several large towns, a city and a considerable number of smaller towns and villages. It does not have an established identity, is not a defined place and is made up of separate areas of economic activity. If 100 people living in the area were asked where they were from, not one would say they were from Cheshire and Warrington. They would say they were from Crewe, Ellesmere Port, Warrington, Congleton or Chester.

Cheshire and Warrington’s localities often have stronger economic relationships with neighbouring regions than with each other. Indeed, the west of the region has a stronger economic relationship with another country entirely—Wales. That is significant because, although a case can be made for a single elected figurehead of a city or a city region, it should be recognised that non-metropolitan areas have significantly different sets of circumstances.

Ed Cox, a director of the Institute for Public Policy Research North, which is a powerful advocate for devolution and a supporter of mayors for city regions, has argued that the mayoral model is not suitable for non-metropolitan areas. His view is shared by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, which stated:

“we believe elected mayors are likely to be better suited to urban areas. The scale, geography and economic diversity of non-metropolitan areas mean elected mayors are unlikely to be an easy fit…Those which do not want an elected mayor, but nonetheless want substantial devolved powers, should be allowed to propose an equally strong alternative model of governance.”

We have good experience of the mayoral system in Salford. However, our executive mayoralty was the result of a referendum in which local people had their say. They now find, regarding Greater Manchester, that another layer has been inserted above their heads without any such legitimacy. Does my hon. Friend agree that democracy must be at the heart of devolution?

My hon. Friend is, of course, right. An irony in this whole debate is that central Government are seeking to dictate to local government on the forms of governance. Genuine devolution should involve a two-way conversation.

I note that the view of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), is similar to mine. In February, he replied to a written question:

“It is for local areas to propose governance structures that are right for them”.

At that stage, it seemed that there was no prescription that a mayor was necessary. It is possible to agree devolution without an elected mayor, as Cornwall Council has demonstrated. However, that option seems to have been taken off the table, and we are left with what appears to be a unilateral insistence that a mayor must be accepted as a precursor to any deal in which powers are devolved. There also appears to be an insistence that the deals be hurriedly put in place to meet a purely political timetable, so that elections can be held in May 2017. That goes against the views of experts such as Lord Kerslake, the chair of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, who stated that public engagement should take place during

“the process of coming to the deal”,

and then,

“having done the deal”.

The Communities and Local Government Committee also criticised the negotiation process, saying that it lacks rigour, and that

“there are no clear, measurable objectives for devolution, the timetable is rushed and efforts are not being made to inject openness or transparency into the deal negotiations.”

There is no doubt but that a huge amount of pressure is being put on council leaders to sign up to the deals, and to comply with the rushed timetables being forced on them. Leaders of areas that have in recent years undergone severe budget cuts that threaten front-line services and the most vulnerable residents are effectively being told, “We can give you the tools that you need to revive your areas, but only on certain conditions.” That kind of approach is undemocratic. It lacks openness, transparency, any consultation, and measurable objectives, and is being done in a rushed way that risks leaving areas with poorly constructed deals that are adopted without the application of any local scrutiny.

I do, however, give the Government credit for asking areas which powers they would like to be devolved, but that huge opportunity is being undermined because Ministers will not allow local areas to negotiate on an even footing to a sensible timetable, or to agree deals in an open way—and, most importantly, a way that genuinely involves the public. The Communities and Local Government Committee report states:

“For devolution to take root and fulfil its aims, it needs to involve and engage the people it is designed to benefit.”

I will focus on the need for discussion and consultation with the public, as there is a huge range of examples of major local changes being made with the consent of the electorate. For example, to trigger a community governance review on whether to set up a new town or parish council, local residents need to give their local authority a petition containing the signatures of at least 7.5% of the local population. If a local authority wants to increase council tax by more than 2%, it must hold a referendum. To put that in context, if the council where I live proposed an increase in council tax of about £30, there would need to be a referendum—but apparently no referendum is needed on whether to put responsibility for hundreds of millions of pounds into the hands of one person.

For a neighbourhood plan to be adopted, a referendum must be held. When new powers were devolved to Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London, referendums were held and the people provided a mandate. Previously, whenever an elected mayor was proposed in a local area, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), a referendum was required. Indeed, regulations under the Local Government Act 2000 require councils to hold a referendum on the establishment of a directly elected mayor if at least 10% of local government electors in the area petition the authority to do so. In matters of local governance, the consent of the public has usually been sought before any significant change has been made. That was, indeed, recognised by the Conservative party in its 2010 manifesto.

This is an important debate. I recently visited a school and met loads of sixth-formers. I asked them whether they could name their council leader or county council leader. In each case, not one person could. An elected mayor would certainly bring about visibility, transparency and accountability. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that that is healthy?

We will have to see about the visibility of mayors in some places. The problem we have in Cheshire and Warrington is that it is such a large area. I do not see how a mayor could really get around and be visible in such a large community.

The hon. Gentleman mentions that his is a large geographical area. London is a large geographical area, but virtually everybody in the country knows who the Mayor is. Would that not be good for the hon. Gentleman’s area?

The hon. Gentleman has conflated his point with what I am saying, which is that non-city regions are different from cities in their nature. Of course, cities have a focal point and are much more condensed. It is just not comparing like with like.

The hon. Gentleman says that Cheshire is too big to have a mayor. It takes an hour to drive from Cheshire East to Cheshire West, and it takes about an hour and a half to get from Warrington down to the south of Manchester. His argument does not stand up to those of us who live, and were born and bred, in Cheshire. A mayor would be able to get around Cheshire easily. Also, if you ask anybody from Greater Manchester, “Do you come from Greater Manchester?”, they would not say yes. They would say they come from Bolton, Oldham or Bury—from the great towns and cities of Greater Manchester—so I would say to you that people might say they come from Cheshire but, if pushed, they will say that they come from Warrington, Macclesfield or Congleton.

If the hon. Gentleman is so confident of his arguments, he will agree that it is important to test the strength of them by holding a referendum on whether the people of Cheshire and Warrington want an elected mayor.

I return to my comments on the Conservative manifesto, which pledged to create 12 newly elected mayors, subject to confirmatory referendums. Although I agree with the experts that an elected mayor is not an appropriate form of governance for a non-metropolitan area, I will support the people of Cheshire and Warrington if they say that they want an elected mayor, but a new level of governance should not be imposed on them without their agreement.

Since I secured this debate, the devolution deal in Cheshire and Warrington appears to have been put on hold, which gives us an opportunity for greater scrutiny of the process. I have questions that I hope the Minister can respond to in his reply. Should not the most appropriate governance structure for an area be decided by its people and their representatives, rather than in Whitehall? Will he agree to a referendum to gauge support for the proposal? If no desire to move to a mayoral model can be found locally, will he still consider devolving powers, if an alternative proposal for strong and accountable local governance is found? If not, why not? If powers can be devolved to Cornwall without a mayor being a prerequisite of any agreement, why not to Cheshire and Warrington, or indeed any other county? Is there any flexibility in the timetable, particularly in the light of recent events? Finally, will he commit to working with me and any other interested parties to find a way to deliver a devolution of powers with which everyone can agree?

Devolution has the potential to have a truly transformative impact on communities, allowing them to cast off the shackles of Westminster and rebalance our nation’s economy, but the Government risk sacrificing all that in many areas through their insistence that they know better than local people what is best for them. Devolution will hopefully allow local communities to create new jobs, unlock sites for development and improve transport infrastructure. Who does not want to see that? I warmly welcome the opportunities that a devolution deal could bring to my area, but I have heard nothing that convinces me that we need a mayor to deliver them.

I am just about to finish, sorry. I genuinely hope that a real opportunity to improve our area is not lost because of Government intransigence on the governance arrangements. If their position is that there will be no investment if there is no mayor, I will not forgive such a petulant approach, and I doubt the public will, either. It does not need to be that way, so will the Minister confirm that he will listen to the Select Committee, the Institute for Public Policy Research and, most importantly, the people we are here to represent by agreeing with me that a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach goes against the grain of what devolution should be about?

Order. On the maths, we reckon there are six minutes per person, allowing for the wind-ups; I ask Members to bear that in mind.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this debate. It is better that we discuss the issues in this way than on “North West Tonight”. He started by saying that this debate was not about devolution, but it is about devolution, as well as about accountability for devolution. It appears from his remarks that he is in favour of devolution, which I am pleased to hear.

It is worth remembering the problem that the Government are trying to solve with this process. Secretaries of State already have all these powers, and the Government are going through this process because we live in a very centralised country—the power of Whitehall is unique. We see that in the gross value added performance of the regions versus London, with the difference between London and the north-west reaching its peak in 2009. Cheshire and Warrington has a local enterprise partnership and a strategic plan, and it is a relatively affluent part of the country, but its relative affluence has decreased over the past 20 years. All of us who represent the area should be concerned about that and should be considering ways to remedy it.

The fact of the matter is that our civil service is London-centric. Even now, London has higher public spending per head than any other region, including, amazingly, Scotland. That is revenue spend; on capital spend, we have seen IPPR reports stating that more is spent per capita in London than in the north-east and parts of the north-west by orders of magnitude. This measure is an honest attempt to fix that. If we proceed on the basis that we all want that, we can start to work on how we achieve it.

We have had two decades of failed regional policy, whether we are talking about the regional development agencies or whatever. The last Parliament started the devolution process with regional growth funds, the LEPs, city deals and growth deals. Some Labour Members opposed the process more or less at every stage—it is interesting that the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) apparently still opposes the Manchester mayoralty. The Government therefore had to engage with local leaders such as Howard Bernstein in Manchester. In 2014, he said that there had been more progress on the devolution agenda in the previous two years than in the preceding 20, which is a good thing. It is good that we are continuing to try to make progress on that.

Devolution is asymmetric, and everywhere is a little different; it is complicated, but that is probably right. As we proceed with implementing the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, there will be more devolution. A clear principle of the Act is that the devolution has to be asked for. I am not here to support Government policy particularly, but the devolution has to be asked for. There is no question of doing something without consent, as we have just seen in Cheshire and Warrington—a mayor will not happen in 2017 because the local council has said that it does not want one. So be it. The council is accountable, and it needs to take responsibility for its decision, but to say that a mayor is being imposed is a little rich; it really is not true. The phrase “At the heart of devolution is democracy” has been used. That is right, and it seems a bit harsh to take the Government to task for wanting to have an election, but there we are.

We are going ahead with devolution in East Anglia, Liverpool, Manchester and various other places. The areas that are being devolved—skills, transport, health, housing and planning—are things on which local people want local representatives to have a say. It is absurd that decisions on, say, skills and the sorts of things that businesses in Manchester need are made by people in Whitehall, rather than Manchester. Exactly that principle applies to Cheshire.

It is true that accountability is a sticking point, because even in Manchester and Liverpool there has been an issue with elected mayors. I mentioned “North West Tonight” at the start of my speech; I saw Joe Anderson, the Mayor of Liverpool, on it. He was arguing with a Labour party colleague who was against elected mayors and he said, “Why should Secretaries of State devolve large chunks of their powers to committees of local authority leaders who might meet every so often?” Joe Anderson put that well. There has to be accountability for the aspects of power being devolved from Secretaries of State. None of this makes any difference to the powers of a local authority—there is no upwards devolution, or upward movements of power to the Mayor—but there is accountability. Apart from anything else, the National Audit Office will not let the Government devolve this stuff, or will give the Government a hard time, if there is not clear accountability for that responsibility.

The National Audit Office does not make laws; the Government do. The Government can legislate for what they want to do.

That is correct. The Government can and should do what they want. My point is that we are talking about transferring power over hundreds of millions of pounds from Secretaries of State, and it is reasonable that the Government and the National Audit Office, as part of the process of government, should take an interest in ensuring that there is clarity about accountability.

Accountability works both ways. Just as the Government are right to impose or request accountability, those who decide that they do not want these powers, or who do not wish to ask for them, are also accountable. Warrington Borough Council, my own council, has voted down the proposal, which is completely its right. The council has an elected mandate, and the Government will not impose the measure, because it must be asked for. All I will say is that those people involved are also accountable to their constituents and to their region, with all that goes with that. If they have missed an opportunity, they are accountable for that, too.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this debate and on how he has put the case against a one-size-fits-all form of devolution, which is what we are arguing about. I do not believe that what the Government are offering us constitutes real devolution. Real devolution would give powers to identifiable local communities, whether or not they wished to have a mayoral system, and would allow them to work with other local authorities as they wished. That is not what was proposed for Cheshire and Warrington. Instead, we were told that we must have a mayoral model and a Cheshire and Warrington local authority.

Much of my constituency—certainly on my side of the river—was not in Cheshire for a very long time; it was in Lancashire, and many people there still think of themselves as proud Lancastrians. They have little community of interest with some of the market towns of Cheshire, and much more in common with the nearby post-industrial towns across the border in Merseyside or Greater Manchester, yet we are told there is the only kind of authority open to us. No one has asked the people of Warrington whether that is what they want. They would be consulted only after a deal had been agreed. No one has asked them whether they want an elected mayor; I suspect that they certainly do not want one covering Cheshire and Warrington, because that is not sufficient local democracy.

I am profoundly depressed by the idea that power is better in the hands of one man—it usually is a man—than of many people. That is a depressing view of democracy, in my understanding of it. Although it might work in urban areas, it does not work in an area such as Cheshire and Warrington. It is of no benefit to my constituents to be run from Congleton or Macclesfield rather than London. Although a mayor would begin with only a few powers, they would be bound to gather more as time went on. Mission creep is built into the model.

No. I am sorry; I do not have time.

I also want to comment on the deal that the Government are offering us if we have an elected mayor. Much of the deal is about things that are going to happen anyway, much of it retains powers for the Secretary of State and some of it diverts money away from Warrington to other parts of Cheshire. To take transport as an example, we are told that we would get a Warrington rail hub linking High Speed 2 and High Speed 3 or the west coast main line. That is great, but first of all, we do not even have a route for HS2.

No. I have said that I will not give way, owing to a lack of time. The hon. Gentleman must forgive me.

We do not have an HS2 route yet. HS3, which in my view would benefit the north much more, is still a distant dream, and does anyone really believe that no rail hub would be needed to link the two lines, whether or not we have a combined authority and a mayor? We are told that we will get free passage over the Mersey bridges instead of paying tolls, but we were promised that in the general election. Will the Government go back on that if we do not have a combined authority?

Then there are the areas where the Secretary of State retains powers, such as the housing programme. The combined authority would have flexibility over only 15% of the housing programme, which could—the word is “could”—include some rented property. When high-value properties are sold, a proportion of the sale will be given to the combined authority, but the proportion is decided by the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State must approve the housing programme.

None of that gives Warrington the powers it needs to build the kinds of homes that our communities need. Yes, we need starter homes for young couples, but we are also in great need of social rented housing. I suspect that all of us have seen people crying in our surgeries because they cannot get houses. Keeping power with the Secretary of State is not devolution. We are told that, under the employment and housing programme, 50% of the uplift on Homes and Communities Agency land—that is, new town land—will be ring-fenced for Warrington, but 50% of it will go to the combined authority. That is a transfer, to the rest of Cheshire, of money that should remain in my local authority. I do not see that as a good deal.

We are told that the combined authority can keep 100% of the growth in business rates over target, but who sets the target? The Government do. That is the first problem: there may be no growth at all. The second problem is that as business rates increase, grant will be lost. There is no extra money. The third problem is where that growth will come from. It will come from places such as Warrington, Ellesmere Port and Chester, not from the largely agricultural communities around the rest of Cheshire. In other words, it is another proposal to transfer money from poorer communities to better-off communities, and it is a con. It is a Tory proposal to ensure that the Labour-voting areas of Chester have permanent Tory Government. That is what this is all about. It is not about devolution to communities—[Interruption.] Yes, that is right. That is why my council has rejected it, and rightly so.

Mr Graham Evans, although you committed a dreadful crime in this room a short while ago by using the word “you”, I am sure you will not use it again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. To follow on from the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), I see a mayor as building consensus, bringing people together and working together to create and distribute wealth, but as long as there are politicians such as yourself, that might be an issue. I have heard a lot said in the last 45 minutes—

Sorry, Ms Dorries. I have heard an awful lot said, but what this is really about is a Labour party that does not like the idea of a Conservative mayor. There is a Labour Mayor in Greater Manchester and there will be a Labour Mayor in Greater Liverpool, and the thought of having a Conservative mayor is clearly what this is really all about. However, whether it is a Conservative mayor—or a Labour mayor—I would like to hope that she or he would work together towards consensus, for the betterment of all the people of Cheshire and Warrington. That is the whole point of being a mayor: when they are elected to office, they represent all the people, irrespective of political allegiance.

I speak as a Cestrian, Cheshire-born and bred. When I was growing up in the 1970s, when we were the sick man of Europe, I had three options for industries in which I could get a job. The first was the textile industry in Macclesfield, where my hon. Friend—[Interruption.]

Order. Ms Jones, I tolerated your chuntering all the way up until it was time for you to speak. Please desist now.

Thank you, Ms Dorries. I am far enough away that I cannot hear any chuntering, but to return to my point, when I was growing up, we had three options for employment. The textile industry was huge in the ’70s, and even up to the ’80s. There was also the aerospace industry, at a place called Woodford, which made the nuclear deterrent and employed thousands of people. There was also something called the pharmaceutical industry. At the time it was ICI; now it is AstraZeneca. I worked in two of those industries: the textile industry and the aerospace industry at British Aerospace. Those two industries have gone.

We had a wake-up call a few years ago in Cheshire with the pharmaceutical industry at Alderley Park, when AstraZeneca decided to move to Cambridge. That was a very big shock for us as politicians, because who was to blame? It was not the leader of Cheshire East or Cheshire West, or indeed Warrington or Greater Manchester, but collectively it was a failure. AstraZeneca’s chief executive, who happened to be French, came from California, turned up in Cheshire and decided to move that industry away from Alderley Park.

If we had a mayor, he or she would be held responsible for ensuring that our economy in Cheshire worked with Greater Manchester, Greater Liverpool, the Mersey Dee Alliance in north Wales and the midlands powerhouse that we are developing. A mayor for Cheshire is exactly the sort of thing that we need. He or she would need the ability to work with colleagues in Greater Manchester, Greater Merseyside, north Wales and the midlands, but that would be part of the role: ensuring that our economy in Cheshire was on the top line.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) ably made the point, as he always does, about our growth. Relatively speaking, Cheshire and Warrington is a very prosperous place, but in the last two decades it has gone backwards compared with London and the south-east. We are a London and south-east-centric country, but we have also fallen behind in comparison with like-for-like regions in countries such as Germany. We have to do things differently in Cheshire to make sure that we keep up with the best.

I believe the role of mayor would be perfect for somebody to bat for Cheshire and Warrington on a national basis, making sure we get that inward investment, but also internationally. We can look at what the Mayor has done for London. London is a global city and Mayors of all political colours have done a fantastic job in representing the people of London and Greater London.

To go back to my original point, I believe the role is important, because it is about consensus and about us all working together to get inward investment. I also have a vested interest, as many of us here do. I have three young children. Why would they need to move to London and the south-east, as so many young people do? They can go to great universities in Cheshire and Warrington, and they can afford to live in Cheshire and Warrington, but they can only do all that if they have the jobs—the good-quality, well-paid careers—that we all want to see.

The north-south divide is growing. What happened at Alderley Park is just one example of that, but there are others. Somebody who could represent Cheshire and Warrington, such as a mayor, would be tasked with dealing with that and when it came to election time, they would be accountable for the growth, or otherwise, within the local economy. As it stands now, everybody goes running for cover—the leader of Warrington, and the leaders of Cheshire East and Cheshire West; “It’s not me”—and disappears. This process brings accountability for the people of Cheshire, irrespective of their political beliefs.

In closing, let me say that I believe this debate is not really about the arguments that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked about. What it is really about is Labour party dogma. Labour cannot stand the thought of having a Conservative mayor, but Labour Members thought the same thing about police and crime commissioners. They did not agree with PCCs—they were all against the idea originally—but we live in a democracy and we now have a Labour PCC. There is no guarantee that there would be a Conservative mayor. There may well be a Conservative mayor, but there could also possibly be a Labour mayor, and we would expect them, irrespective of party allegiance, to represent everybody in Cheshire and Warrington and to bat for the community for the future—our future, but more importantly the future of our children and grandchildren.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and my next-door neighbour on securing this debate. It is a great pleasure to follow him; it is almost as great a pleasure as it is to serve and speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

I certainly will not need the six minutes per speaker that you suggested, Ms Dorries, because the case made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston and for Warrington North (Helen Jones) is so compelling. However, I will just follow up on a couple of points that have already been made.

The hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) said that this system was not being imposed and he is absolutely right—these are deals that have to be requested. However, the structure is being imposed, because only one option is being offered. It is a one-time chance and it is very much a one-size-fits-all policy. It is “take it or leave it”.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said earlier, in his view, which is also my view, Cheshire does not lend itself to a mayoralty. Different parts of the county look at things from different angles and differently from how neighbouring areas look at them. My other next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), talked about the success of the Mersey Dee Alliance. The fact is that so much of the growth in Chester, which is in west Cheshire, is predicated on that expanding and growing partnership, which has been so successful. I remind hon. Members that the MDA is very much based on a group of leaders of local councils on a committee, and yet it is working. The process of bringing those authorities together across the border is working, despite the fact that there is a committee and a group.

I am informed that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told some of our local council leaders that he was not going to devolve powers to a committee, which is a bit rich coming from a man who sits on the principal Committee of the country, which is the Cabinet. Obviously, he has no faith in the Committee system or indeed in Cabinet Government.

When the Minister responds to the debate, I would like him to say why the Government consider that it is appropriate to impose what is essentially a one-size-fits-all policy when that is the opposite of what they stated they were trying to achieve. If he is really concerned about growth in our area, and I am sure he is, as indeed are hon. Members from all parties, perhaps he will get Ministers in other Departments to pay attention to some of the levers of growth, such as improving and upgrading the M56 in my area and in the area of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, or improving the railway lines and the other forms of transport; for example, improving and electrifying the railway line through Crewe to Chester and north Wales. There are plenty of ways we can indeed drive economic growth.

Cheshire is where I grew up. It is not actually where I was born, for the reason that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North spoke about—when I was born in Warrington general hospital, I believe that it was in Lancashire, so I cannot claim to be purely Cheshire-born. However, I am certainly Cheshire-bred and Cheshire is the place that is very much in my heart. It is a privilege to represent the county of my youth, if not of my birth.

Cheshire is diverse geographically. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, the town centres do not necessarily look into each other, and in this instance a mayoralty is wrong. I am pleased that the mayoralty system seems to have been put on the backburner, which has given hon. Members and other members of the community an opportunity to have a debate about what is the best form of governance. It simply cannot be right that only one form is offered. If we are really keen to drive forward devolution in non-metropolitan areas, the Government really need to have a more open mind and listen to what else is on offer.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Dorries.

I thank all the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon—the contributions have been very thought-provoking—and I thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for securing this important debate. It is important that he said that mayoralty was not suitable for all areas. He gave the example of Cornwall, which is not being forced to have a mayor. The cities in Scotland that have been offered city deals, with funding contributions from the UK Government, have not been asked to have a mayor either. It is not within the civic tradition of Scotland to have a mayor. Quite often, we will have a civic head in a Lord Provost and a political head in the leader of the council, but we have not been asked at any point to have a mayor as part of this process.

A very interesting report was brought out just yesterday by the Scottish Cities Alliance, called “Empowering City Government”. It contains significant discussions about what more the seven cities in Scotland might get from the powers coming to the Scottish Government as part of the devolution process, and about what more they might ask for. Mayors are not one of the many asks in that report. So this issue is not only being discussed in England.

It was also very interesting that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to the Communities and Local Government Committee report and mentioned consultation, because when the Committee, of which I am a member, held a public session in Manchester about the city deal there, members of the public, trade union representatives and a range of interested people expressed a huge amount of concern especially about health devolution. The people there did not quite understand what was being offered to them, how it would benefit them or what the full implications might be. What exactly it will mean is still being teased out. I share the concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed about the lack of transparency about the process, what is being offered and where the public fit in the whole scheme of things.

It has been said that perhaps not everybody can name their council leader. I can assure the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) that the council leader in Glasgow, who is a Labour council leader, is well known. The janitors in the city are currently out on strike and they are wearing face masks with the council leader’s face on them, so he is well ken’d and well known, although that is not perhaps working out the best way for him.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned how centralised the UK is, which is true—London is the great sucking machine that takes all the spending and all the jobs. It is very interesting that he made a comparison with Scotland, because we know anyway that we are subsidising London and have been for many years. The civil service is also in London—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that too—and the Government are intensifying the situation, with the HMRC closures, and other Departments locating back to London.

I thank the hon. Lady. For the avoidance of doubt, if my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) were in Scotland they would both receive massively more money per head than they do through the Barnett formula. The notion that Scotland subsidises London is bizarre.

The hon. Gentleman might find it bizarre, but people in Scotland do not. The Aberdeen region city deal was £550 per head, whereas the figure for Manchester was £2,130 and for Bristol £1,207, so Scotland is losing out compared with city deals in the rest of the UK.

The point about democracy and the chaotic structures that are being created has been well made. The now many layers of local government in England increase the lack of democracy in many cases, and powers have been transferred away from and above local people and local government to a layer that is further away from them. I understand that the Public Accounts Committee has challenged the effectiveness of the devolution deals so far.

The hon. Member for Warrington North argued against the one-size-fits-all approach, and I absolutely concur with her. She mentioned the notion that power devolved is power retained, with local authorities perhaps not getting all the things they expected and hoped for, and that certainly seems to be the case with some of the deals—more things have been asked for than have been allowed. The question whether it will be a Labour or a Tory mayor is interesting to observe from my position, because when local government reform was taking place in Scotland in the late ’90s, there seemed to be a bit of a sense that some areas had been pockled in favour of Labour or Tory councils-to-be. There are still issues there, with Glasgow not doing as well as its wealthy neighbours and people from round about using the services there. There remain issues about who pays for the services.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) blamed many people for the loss of industries in his constituency, but he did not blame central Government, which I find curious. Responsibility is important; a mayor should have responsibility and accountability, but the buck must stop with central Government and the job policies that they create. They must ensure that the conditions are correct. In Scotland we have also seen the loss of heavy industries, but we are now in a position to make a bit of a difference. The shiny example is the saving of the Ferguson shipyard in Inverclyde, which had been run down over many years. The Scottish Government put in investment and found a buyer, and the shipyard is now thriving and taking on apprentices.

It is not a case of blaming people. We live in a global economy and a global world, and regions and areas must take that into account. The point I am making is that we know that in the next 10, 15, 20 or 30 years industries will see changes. They will be global changes, and the whole point of devolution is that it gives us the power to foresee such changes and make changes to our local economy, infrastructure, education and skills so that we are best placed to attract inward investment from across the world, or wherever.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a global economy, but the powers that are being devolved to local authorities are not enough to do what he says. In the interesting report that I mentioned, the Scottish Cities Alliance calls for more powers for local authorities in Scotland over immigration policy because there are areas that are not thriving as well as they could be and not attracting the skills that they could. The limited devolution powers do not go far enough.

The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) made some interesting remarks, and I ask him to reflect on this quote from the Chancellor. He said:

“I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”

Those two statements together do not make sense. He either wants it or he does not.

Finally, I want to put it on the record that the Scottish National party supports attempts to bring about local democracy, but we do not think that this measure is the radical devolution that is required. We are concerned that changing the formation of existing powers could create a chaotic structure. More thought needs to be given to the proposals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for doing a sterling job in opening this important debate and for highlighting the very real concerns that exist not just in his area but, as the Minister well knows, right across the country in relation to the Government’s imposition of a mayor as part of devolution bids and deals.

The Chancellor—it is the Treasury not the Department for Communities and Local Government that is leading on the deals—has made it clear from day one that an elected mayor is a prerequisite condition for the devolution of major powers. It is the price that he has demanded for giving more control to local areas. Although individual areas were promised bespoke deals by the Government, there has been little room for manoeuvre.

The whole point of devolution, as the Minister knows, was to move away from over-centralised governance, to open up that dialogue between central and local government on what works best for each area. Yet, from the outset the discussions have been delivered in a top-down fashion, with the Government holding council leaders to ransom, threatening them with no deal if they do not yield to the Chancellor’s will. It is little wonder, then, that the Cheshire and Warrington devolution deal, and also the north-east, East Anglia, greater Lincolnshire and west of England deals, have all stalled, citing concerns regarding the Government’s imposition of a mayor.

It is not just council leaders and their councillors, however, who are expressing concerns. The Communities and Local Government Committee and a recent National Audit Office report have given weight to the legitimate criticisms that are coming up time and time again. The criticisms are about the insistence on an elected mayor, about local geography, transparency and accountability and, more importantly, about the deals being totally void of public consultation. The principle of elected mayors as a means of providing visible leadership and accountability is one thing, but imposing them is a totally different matter. Local areas should be free to decide whether an elected mayor is the right model of governance for them.

Similarly, the way in which the boundaries have been carved up in the geography of the devolution deals has bewildered many local people. Boroughs that have an affinity with other boroughs because of shared issues and identities have been passed over for devolution deals, while areas that have completely different issues, aims and objectives have all been lumped together.

I know that the Minister is not daft, so he must understand that what works for one area does not always work for the other.

If the devolution agenda is to move forward and be successful, there is an urgent need for some flexibility to allow local areas to adapt governance models to suit their own geographical and political circumstances.

It is also true that elected Mayors in two-tier areas are in danger of creating five layers of local governance. Add to that the undemocratically elected local enterprise partnerships, and we have a complex, overly bureaucratic, costly system of representation that will render the public absolutely dizzy figuring out where to go for which service and who is accountable when things go wrong.

I want the Minister to come clean. The truth is that the Chancellor has his own political master plan, an agenda that has nothing to do with bringing power and decision making closer to people but a desperate and devious plan to neutralise Labour-held councils, to position himself as the creator of a so-called northern powerhouse, and to strike alliances with Labour mayors or try to massage the geography of the deals to increase the chances of a Tory mayor presiding over what were once predominantly Labour areas.

Devolution for this Government is local government reorganisation through the back door and delegation of blame for their own cuts to the combined authorities. I hope that the Minister will provide some clarity in his response, and if there is only one question that he feels able to answer, can it be this: why, despite the myriad dissenting voices of the public, trade unions, councillors, experts, Select Committees and people in this place—even in his own party—is there a rushed insistence on mayors?

It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this debate, on what is undoubtedly an important and topical matter of concern and interest to Members across the House, as we can see from the contributions that have been made today.

I also thank the shadow Minister for the best compliment she has yet paid me, in suggesting that I am not daft. I will ignore the sedentary chuntering from the Benches behind her, which was perhaps audible for the record. Indeed, not daft would be an understatement, were it true that I was able to choreograph the grand conspiracy that some of those who have contributed to this debate seem to believe is being perpetrated and were it true that I am such a Machiavellian political operator that I have taken the Tees Valley, the north-east, Greater Manchester and Greater Liverpool, to name but a few, and contrived to draw up devolution deals that will deliver Conservative mayors for those areas. I am delighted that some Members have such confidence in the political nous of those who lead my party that we may be able to achieve that, but I suggest that it is not the case.

I consider my bubble burst, but it was worth a try to take what compliments might be on offer when the opportunity was there. They have eluded my grasp on this occasion. Devolution is an important matter. It is transformational and of constitutional significance for how we run our country. It is important for driving future economic growth and recognises that it is those living in the communities affected by the decisions made by Government at whatever level who are best placed to understand how those decisions should be made and the things that can be done to grow the economies we represent in our different constituencies and different parts of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful that the Minister says it should be people in communities who decide these things. Can he explain why Birmingham had a referendum, voted against having an elected mayor and is getting one anyway?

I will explain the difference between the sort of mayors we have had before and the approach the Government are taking to devolution at this time, as well as why that is the right approach. Looking at the history of mayors, we have all known and experienced civic mayors. That important role recognises the contribution that local councillors have often made in representing their local authority. We saw a transition to local authority mayors pioneered under the previous Labour Government. That saw powers taken from local authorities and focused in that executive person. Indeed, the example that the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) gave was of powers coming from a local authority into that executive person, who would then use them in theory for the good of that area, with their democratic accountability and mandate.

The sort of mayors we are talking about with devolution hold powers coming down from central Government that are currently held by Ministers and exercised by civil servants. We want to give those powers to people who are closer to the communities affected by their exercise. We want to transfer those powers down. Where there is a significant transfer of Executive control and decision-making with those powers, we also want to ensure sharp accountability delivered by an elected person with the mandate to ensure that the work that needs to be done can be delivered, but who will be accountable to the electors of the area over which they are the mayor.

That area is not chosen by central Government. The process of devolution for any area is a deal, and that is a two-way process, but we ask areas to come forward and tell us the geography on which they think a devolution deal should be delivered. Rather than Government dictating centrally what the geography might be, we allow local communities, represented by their elected local authority leaders, to look at the geography of the economy in which they operate and tell us what they think is the right geography.

The Minister will recall that we spoke in a recent debate on devolution in East Anglia. The issue there was that the Government were not allowing those areas to decide the geography. How does he explain the point he just made in the light of that?

It is very clear. The Government do not have the power in statute to force any area to accept a devolution deal. It happens by agreement, working with local authority leadership. If an area is not happy with what is proposed, whether that is the geography, the powers or the mechanism of governance, the Government have no power to compel them to make that deal or to go down that route of devolution at that time. What is so welcome is that so many areas have done that and have recognised the opportunities to choose their own geographies.

Members have spoken about the overlapping and different-layered identities of our constituents. I represent Stockton South in Teesside, which is also within the larger Tees valley. My constituency is half in the old north riding of Yorkshire and half in County Durham for ceremonial purposes. People identify in different ways in my constituency. I of course understand that in any area or geography of any scale or size there will be differences of identity. The point of devolution is to identify the economic opportunities, and we have approached that from the bottom up. We have let those communities come forward, put their proposal on the table and persuade Government why it is the right thing. We do not accept everything that is brought forward. We work with them to test and understand why they want to make that deal, but that is the right approach, because it will give a geography that will last and stand the test of time.

We take the same approach with the powers that we are conferring with devolution. We allow areas to come to us with their bid, and we make a deal with them about the powers they want. There is not some centrally held list. There is not a restricted and narrowly defined number of things that an area can have. They can ask for whatever they want; it is a deal with Government. We have to agree, and we work with them on those areas in which we can find agreement, and hopefully we reach a deal in the interests of that geography and those communities, identifying the powers that will help drive forward the economy in that area.

The Minister is being generous in giving way once more. Warrington would be subject to four different tiers of local government under the current proposed deal: an elected mayor, a combined authority, a council and parish councils. From what he is saying, can I deduce that if Warrington came to him with a proposal for more powers to the local authority, he would consider it?

We will always have discussions with any local authority, but it is very unlikely that we would be able to make a deal with Warrington alone. The idea of devolution is to bring together areas in sensible economic geographies to deliver extended and accelerated growth through additional powers currently held and exercised by Government. The powers are not being created out of thin air. It is not a matter of an extra layer; the powers are already being exercised by Ministers like me sat in Whitehall Departments and by civil servants who are not elected by the people affected by those decisions. We are giving those areas a chance to hold those powers nearer to the people affected by how they are used. We are giving them the chance to elect the people who make those decisions.

We cannot compel any area to have a metro mayor or the new devolved structures that so many areas have signed up to, but we have been clear that where areas want ambitious devolution deals and a wide-ranging package of powers to drive real change for their communities and to grow their economies, we expect a mayor to be part of that, because of the accountability, drive and mandate that comes with that position. The Government have made no secret of that, but I reiterate that we do not have the power to compel any area to be part of that process. It is very important that so many areas have welcomed what we are doing, engaged with us and entered into deals. We continue to talk about where deals might go next and what they might do for the future.

Members from all parts of the House have spoken about the specific Cheshire and Warrington proposals. I hope that area will be part of the process and will grasp with both hands the opportunity the Government present to do something exciting, to drive forward its economy, to bring power closer to local people and to recognise the incredible potential of that area and the people who live within it, which the businesses operating there can deliver on. It is an exciting time, and I hope that the politics and the conspiracy theories, some of which we have seen brought to the Chamber today, will not prevent those communities from benefiting from a significant transfer of powers that have been centralised over decades and political generations out to the people who will be affected by their exercise. That is welcome. In principle, it is welcomed across the political divide, and we have heard comments to that effect today. I hope agreement can be delivered so that the people in those communities can benefit from what we are setting out to do.

I think we have had an excellent debate. Most Members have generally supported the concept of devolution. We have talked a lot about accountability and working together, and I hope we are able to do that. The Minister says that no form of governance is imposed on any area, but in the next sentence he says, “We are not going to impose anything, but you have to do it on certain conditions.” That is the fundamental dishonesty at the heart of the process, and it is not genuine devolution.

I echo the words of the shadow Minister: we need some flexibility in this. We need to listen to local communities and understand what they want and need. We need to work together to try to deliver genuine devolution. I have not heard anything that has convinced me that an elected mayor is the right solution for my area, but I am absolutely convinced that if there are powers available, we should do our utmost to grab them as quickly as we can.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered elected mayors outside city regions.

Sitting adjourned.