Friday, 4 May 2012

If it’s not Mayors … why not put form after function?

Whilst there may be one or two new city mayors widespread enthusiasm for the model remains stubbornly elusive. We will surely see much discussion about exactly why over the coming days.

This piece is instead about what could happen next; what is a possible new dispensation for a period in which directly elected Mayors have been largely given the thumbs-down but in which there remains untapped enthusiasm for more devolution and on-going need for more integration?

The arguments for greater devolution and greater integration at both local and conurbation scale are entirely separable from those about specific types of governance. Indeed, it makes considerably more sense to match the form of governance to the functional roles and responsibilities being sought than to make an ex ante decision about the types of governance options that are available.

In responding to the mayoral referendum results, Ministers have been saying that it should be for local areas to decide how they want to be governed.

Yet at the moment, in line with guided localism, people can only respond to questions set by the Government.

The rejection of mayors in many parts of the country leaves some big questions:

-         How will the city deals offering at least some additional devolution of responsibilities (however unclear) now be taken forward and will the Government move from the presumption of going further with places which have a mayor or take their ball away?

-          How could the greater integration in decision making that Mayors were intended to achieve now happen?

-          In the largest metropolitan areas the need for further development at conurbation level seems clear and the problems with mayors for only small parts of these areas has always been apparent but how is that to be achieved?

And as part of the answers to these questions will the Government now facilitate the development of other options apart from mayors as new forms of decision making?

It is not that the hands of the Government are tied.

The Localism Act allows the Secretary of State to establish other types of governance arrangement beyond the existing models for the executive (mayors or leaders with cabinets) or committee structures.

The largely unremarked section 9BA which the Localism Act inserted into the Local Government Act 2000 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing the arrangements that local authorities may operate for and in connection with the discharge of their functions.

Councils may ask the Government to make such regulations if in their opinion the new arrangements would improve the discharge of their functions.

There are many unanswered questions about these provisions including the focus on the council alone rather than on a broader set of functions at local level but they open up the possibility of a wider range of new local governance arrangements.

A good move now would be for Ministers to signal that they are prepared to make use of them to give impetus for some more experimentation that might better respond to needs at local level.

That is not to overlook the uphill struggle to make the arguments for change when people have generally turned their backs on mayors. But it would be possible to make the whole mayoral saga have some positive outcomes if there were now clear commitment to:

-              the need for more devolution from central to local and for more integration at local level both in terms of principle and in terms of practice, particularly given the very severe public expenditure climate

-              a positive response from Ministers to proposals for new governance models that would be used to give them effect.

That’s where some effort could now fruitfully be focused.