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Localism Bill: Shadow Mayors

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they still intend to use the powers contained in the Localism Bill to appoint Councillor Mike Whitby, Conservative leader of Birmingham City Council, as shadow mayor of Birmingham, following the recent local government election results.

My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord or Councillor Whitby will be more relieved to know that, as a result of the amendments laid by noble Lords to the Localism Bill last night, the Government have indicated that they will be prepared to support all those that delete from the Bill the concept of shadow mayors. There will now be no opportunity for Councillor Whitby to be appointed as shadow mayor, although he would be perfectly free to stand as a candidate if a referendum in Birmingham approved a mayoral election.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. U-turns are always welcome, and this Government seem to have got into the habit of making U-turns in the last few weeks. Can I suggest another one? The Localism Bill gives power to the Secretary of State to require the 11 largest cities in England without an elected mayor to have a referendum. If the Government truly believe in localism, why do they not leave it to those cities to decide whether there should be a referendum?

There are powers in the Local Government Act 2000 for referendums to be held in any local authority to see whether local people want a mayor. However, we believe that these 11 cities—there are now 11; there were 12—are so important and that major cities across the world benefit so much from having a mayor that this is something that we ought to do here. Of course, it is only a direction to have a referendum. It is then up to the local people democratically to decide whether they wish to go down that path.

My Lords, may I congratulate the Minister for not only listening to the views from all sides of this House and outside but for having the courage and good sense to act upon them in getting rid of shadow mayors? If that is described as a U-turn, I join the noble Lord in welcoming a Government who have the good sense to listen to views expressed by others. Does the Minister also share the view of her Secretary of State, expressed in the August 2010 issue of Total Politics, that local authorities should be able to have whatever governance arrangements they wish, provided they are efficient, transparent and accountable?

All sorts of governance arrangements are now available to local authorities. They can decide whether they have a mayor and a cabinet, a leader and cabinet, or a leader. Now, once the Localism Bill becomes an Act, they will be able to go back to the committee system that was so abruptly removed from their power by the previous Government. Yes, it is right that local government should be able to decide how it best runs its affairs, but the local electorate should have a hand in helping it decide that.

My Lords, when the noble Baroness receives the richly deserved accolade of the freedom of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea this Thursday, will her speech include an encouragement for the royal borough to hold a referendum for the creation of an elected mayor?

I believe that freemen in the City are allowed to drive their sheep across the bridge. I am not sure that I would expect the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to drive a referendum on a mayor. It considers that it looks after itself and the borough very well.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for the Government’s good sense in recognising that the proposal for shadow mayors was not very wise. At the same time, I object to the constant accusations of U-turns in matters such as this. What is the purpose of this House if it is not to debate legislation and persuade Ministers to change their mind? What are we for if it is not for that?

My Lords, I had better declare an interest: the present Lord Mayor of Birmingham is Councillor Anita Ward who, for the best part of 20 years, was my PA in the fine constituency of Birmingham, Erdington. Is the Minister aware that the person most relieved at the Government’s decision not to proceed with this preposterous idea to appoint leaders of the council as shadow mayors will be Councillor Mike Whitby himself, who is opposed to the idea?

My Lords, I did say, in my opening remarks, that I was not sure who would be more relieved about the decision—the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, or Councillor Whitby. By the sounds of things, it will be Councillor Whitby.

My Lords, would the noble Baroness care to give the answer that she would give to citizens of the cities who would rather spend the cost of holding a referendum on services, particularly in the north, which has been so savagely affected by government policy?

My Lords, I am assuming that the noble Baroness is not speaking for all citizens or imagines that all citizens in Birmingham will hold the same view. I am sure that there will be a number of citizens who, if given the opportunity to hold a referendum, would consider that it was money well spent.

Is my noble friend aware that if she looks at Hansard as far back as it goes, she will find that throughout history a change of policy by the Government is known as listening to the people on this side and a U-turn on the other?