Who holds the power in the Northern Powerhouse?

Arnie CravenUncategorised

ASCII   30 images, Size: 9616 x 7926, FOV: 114.09 x 83.02, RMS: 2.88, Lens: Standard, Projection: Planar, Color: LDR

ASCII 30 images, Size: 9616 x 7926, FOV: 114.09 x 83.02, RMS: 2.88, Lens: Standard, Projection: Planar, Color: LDR

The news that Greater Manchester gained a Mayor last week may come as a surprise to some. The position, arguably the second most important directly elected role in Britain, came into existence with barely a squeak from the media – and without any member of the public casting a vote.

The position was filled by a vote of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, an association of Greater Manchester’s ten council leaders. The fact that the first Mayor was chosen, not by the public, but by representatives of local government, provides a clear hint about the nature of the position.

To best understand how the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ model of elected mayors will work, it is first important to contrast the Greater Manchester devolution model with the Greater London one. Followers of British politics would probably agree that London’s Mayor is a creature of regional government. Boris clearly sits above London’s 32 boroughs, away from the rough and tumble of local government. He is held to account by the London Assembly, a body directly elected by all Londoners.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester is different. It is located very much within the framework of local government. The Mayor will sit with Greater Manchester’s ten Council Leaders, they will be his Cabinet and they will hold him to account. If a simple majority of those Council Leaders oppose a Mayoral proposal, that proposal will fail. There is no democratically elected Assembly to ensure the Mayor can be directly held to account by the public.

This is not to say the Mayoral position and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ represents a rejigging of local government. In fact, it is quite the reverse. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, along with his Combined Authority, have seen powers devolved over:

Strategic planning, including the ability to create a spatial framework for the region
Transport spending and the authority to regulate certain types of public transport
Health spending and the NHS
Education and training

For us it is the first bullet point in that list that arouses interest and which best articulates the limitations of the Mayoral position.

Tucked away in the small print of the devolution deal is a provision that the spatial framework must be unanimously agreed by the Mayor’s Cabinet. But the Mayor will not choose his own Cabinet – his Cabinet is the Leaders of Greater Manchester’s 10 Councils.

Ultimately, that is one of the best illustrations of how George Osborne’s northern devolution will work. Despite superficially being similar to the Greater London model, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is really about strengthening local government. The elected Mayor is the mechanism in which the general public can hold the Combined Authority to account, but it is not, in itself, a role that can radically reshape Greater Manchester’s landscape.

Whilst this structure is likely to work well at first, the idea of embedding a directly elected Mayor within, rather than above, local government, could be a recipe for conflict when the position comes up for election in 2017. After all, directly elected Mayoral positions have a habit of attracting mavericks – look no further than Boris and Ken.

Would a Mayor of Greater Manchester with the weight of hundreds of thousands of votes behind them be able to function with the leader of one of Manchester’s smaller boroughs having a perpetual veto over certain policies? Or an unruly Council Leader forcing him or herself into a key Cabinet position?

Moreover, with George Osborne insisting on a directly elected Mayor before contemplating further devolution to West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Merseyside and the North East, Combined Authorities all less cohesive than Greater Manchester, local government across the north could become a battleground between elected Mayors with big mandates and local government leaders who hold the real levers of power.