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Directly Elected Mayors

Volume 776: debated on Monday 31 October 2016


Asked by

My Lords, the Government are clear that directly elected mayors can provide that strong and accountable governance locally that is necessary if significant powers and budgets are to be devolved to local areas, and are the most appropriate governance model for the most ambitious deals, particularly in cities.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the—certainly, for me—welcome suggestions in various newspapers that the Prime Minister is not nearly as keen on making directly elected mayors compulsory for areas engaged in devolution as was the case with the enthusiastic support they got constantly from George Osborne? If it is the case that the Prime Minister is a little bit more open-minded on this, should not the Government at least let those local authorities know, in areas where they are discussing devolution settlements, that if they do not want a directly elected major, they do not have to have one?

My Lords, first of all, there is no question of areas having to have directly elected mayors: these are grass-roots decisions, brought forward by local authority leaders if they want elected mayors. There is nothing compulsory about it. However, it remains very much the case that that is the policy—the most ambitious deals will go forward only if they have directly elected mayors.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in Lincolnshire, which is a large rural area, the county council overwhelmingly voted not to have a directly elected mayor, although it would welcome, and be able adequately to exercise, devolved functions? My noble friend, in his Answer, said, “particularly in cities”. Can he now say that it will not be necessary in rural areas?

My Lords, first of all, I was aware of what happened in Lincolnshire. Of course it was not a definite, final decision: that will be taken only in the first two weeks of November. I have indicated that there have been deals without mayors—that was the case in Cornwall—but they were unambitious deals. It remains the case that, whether it is rural or urban, the most ambitious deals will have mayors.

My Lords, the Minister told us that this was a matter for grass-roots decisions and was not compulsory. Do the Government have a list of those powers that can be devolved with an elected mayor and a list of those powers that can be devolved where there is not an elected mayor; and will the Government publish those lists?

My Lords, it is the case that the most important strategic powers on transport, planning, investment and adult education go with having a directly elected mayor via the combined authorities. The noble Lord will know that there are lesser powers in Cornwall, for example. It is also important to note that the mayor is the voice for the area in terms of gaining investment and representing industry. This role is significant and important on the continent and in America and will, I believe, be important here.

My Lords, I think I am probably more of an enthusiast for directly elected mayors than my noble friend Lord Grocott. However, the significant point is that in London, where there is a very successful mayoralty, the local people voted in a referendum to have such a system. Given that the Minister is talking about this being a grass-roots-led process, why do the Government not allow the communities concerned to decide whether they wish to have a directly elected mayor, rather than imposing the conditions centrally from Whitehall?

My Lords, as I indicated, it is the directly elected representatives of cities such as Liverpool and Manchester—not necessarily Conservative areas—who bring forward the idea and then it is for the people to make their choice on the mayor. All the evidence on the continent, in the United States and, as the noble Lord rightly said, in London, shows that this is the way forward for ambitious deals.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the much-vaunted eastern region devolved administration of Norfolk and Suffolk—Cambridgeshire has been spun off—is falling apart because of the requirement of an elected mayor? The main reason for wanting those devolved powers is precisely to strengthen the rural transport connections, as part of East Anglia, for example, is surrounded on three sides by water. Following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, will the Minister review the position and understand that rural areas are precisely the places where transport connectivity might be vital for economic growth, so that those in the more deprived rural areas can come into their market towns, but that it is not possible because of the Government’s absurd, 1970s insistence on elected mayors?

My Lords, I am not sure that this is something that was prevalent in the 1970s. On the noble Baroness’s example of Norfolk and Suffolk, I very much hope that they do pursue a deal, but that is very much a matter for Norfolk and Suffolk. There are other rural areas that are pursuing this with vigour as well—Cambridgeshire, for example. It is a matter for those areas.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the discussions in Yorkshire between rural and urban areas and the question of whether one goes for Leeds-and-a-bit, a greater Yorkshire or an alternative. While an elected mayor for Leeds is entirely appropriate, an elected mayor for the mixed urban and rural areas of Yorkshire, containing between 4 million and 5 million people, seems to us to be entirely inappropriate. Will he take that on board?

My Lords, I bow to the noble Lord’s knowledge—I know he is very well aware of the local situation—but it is for the people of the locality to come forward with the plans and then, of course, it will be looked at by the department. However, I take his point on the specific example.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an elected councillor of the London Borough of Lewisham and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Will the Minister explain to the House why these ambitious deals must have a directly elected mayor? Why cannot the local people decide?

It has certainly been asked in a different guise, but let me reply to it again. It is a matter for the directly elected representatives of the constituent councils to come forward with plans. They know their localities. On occasion, they have not wanted to pursue it; as was the case, for example, in South Tyneside. So it is a matter for them. As I have said previously, all the evidence from the continent, from the United States and from London is that this system works.

If the Minister has doubts about referendums will he please explain, in the case of Birmingham and Coventry specifically—where there was a clear rejection in a referendum of directly elected mayors—why now, without a referendum, he is imposing a directly elected mayor across the whole West Midlands region?

My Lords, I am all for people exaggerating my powers but I am not imposing anything at all. As I have indicated, it is a matter for the people of the locality, through their elected representatives, to come forward with these plans. The noble Lord is mixing up two very different things. The referendums he referred to were not combined authority elections.