George Osborne announced on Monday 3 November that Greater Manchester is to get its own directly-elected city-wide mayor with powers over transport, housing, planning and policing. Although we tend to think of Manchester as a single, sprawling metropolis, in local government terms, it consists of 10 separate local councils: Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council, Bury Metropolitan Borough Council, Manchester City Council, Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, Salford City Council, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council and Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council. For some time these councils have been cooperating through membership of a Greater Manchester Combined Authority which represents these 10 authorities.
George Osborne’s announcement will lead, in time, to the election of a Mayor for the area with powers over a huge transport budget including bus services and integrated ticketing for all modes of public transport. He will be responsible for strategic planning for the area and will control a £300 million Housing Investment Fund. Interestingly, he will take on the role of Police & Crime Commissioner.
This pretty much mirrors the role of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London. Again, we think of London as a huge and sprawling metropolis but its local government is split between 32 London boroughs – 12 inner London and 20 outer London. The concept of a directly-elected Mayor for London has clearly worked well; accountability is obvious, particularly with a colourful character like Boris. The underground works well; the buses are better and the congestion charge has helped to reduce congestion and to improve air quality. Boris’s Barclays Bank bicycles have also been a boon for those who cycle.
What I find hugely amusing is that we are returning to a form of regional government enacted in a stealthy manner by a Conservative government. Traditionally and, I think, wrongly, the Conservative Party has rejected the whole concept of regionalism when it should have been rejecting Labour’s version of it in the form of unelected regional assemblies. It is pretty obvious that functional economic areas like London, Birmingham and Manchester will only function effectively if strategic decisions can be taken quickly and delivered locally. The only alternative to strong regional bodies that are strategic is for Westminster to try to second guess what is best for an area and that will never work as well as local planning and implementation. London could never achieve its maximum economic performance if its governance was left to 32 disparate and pretty small London boroughs. Equally, Manchester found the need to combine the decision-making of its 10 authorities into a Greater Manchester Combiner Authority, led by Lord Peter Smith and Sir Richard Leese – two Labour politicians. The next obvious step is to create the mechanism for a directly-elected Mayor of Manchester and I strongly suspect Birmingham, Liverpool. Leeds and Newcastle will not be far behind.
Greater London has a population of 8½ million people. Greater Manchester has 2½ million. Greater Birmingham is close to 3 million while the Liverpool city region is some 2 million and Tyneside has close to 1 million people. What binds them together is that they are functional economic areas, divided into several local government areas by boundaries that ignore economic reality. What they need is coherent, strategic planning that stretches across those boundaries and could provide for strong economic growth and the power to argue for necessary infrastructure investment. I predict they will all have directly elected mayors within five years, regardless of the political colour of the government of the day.
I would like to see this political and economic devolution go much further. There are plenty of slightly smaller parts of the country that are functional economic areas. Oxfordshire is one such area with a population approaching 700,000, with a university City at its heart but with vibrant market towns and strong economic linkages across its 1,000 square miles. This economic functionality is emphasised by travel to work patterns and a good transport network of road, rail and buses. Like the bigger metropolitan areas, Oxfordshire is divided into five district councils and there is also an upper tier county council. While the boundaries of the latter are broadly contiguous with the mapping of the functional economic area, the district boundaries cut straight across them and make no sense. Indeed, they present a straight jacket that is suffocating the City of Oxford. There are really two options to make Oxfordshire’s economy hum and to improve the quality of life for its population. Either, create a single unitary county council for the whole of Oxfordshire to plan for the single economy that lies within it or create an elected-mayor along the lines of Manchester with powers and a budget for strategic planning, transport and economic development and leave the mayor to drive through policies that will turn Oxfordshire into the economic dynamo it has the potential to be but also to remain a great place in which to live and work.
I would never have dared to suggest either of these options while I was Leader of the County Council. The large number of dual hatters would have caused my rapid downfall as Leader for advocating unitary government and directly-elected mayors are not too popular with many councillors because they would be expected to curb their powers. Now I am too old to consider running for Oxfordshire’s Mayor, I feel a lot more able to extol the virtues of the idea without being accused of wanting the job for myself!