The unconvincing plan for growth apart, and the aftermath of Coronavirus not withstanding, ConservativeHome identified three main areas of policy weakness in the Queen’s Speech: social care, the delivery of net zero and English localism.
The first two turn out to be connected to the last – as are the whole country’s future prospects for growth and recovery. Why? Because, as David Lidington put it recently –
“Whether it’s delivering an industrial strategy, or high quality apprenticeships, or integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, we are likely to get better and faster results, and to encourage innovation and experiment…
…if these things are done by the central government of the UK working in genuine partnership with elected devolved, local and regional leaders…
…who in turn are able both to use their convening power to rally business, education, cultural and third sector organisations and through their endorsement give additional democratic legitimacy to the plan”.
Boris Johnson began to correct that weakness in his speech last week, in which he sketched out what may be taken from the postponed devolution white paper and put into the coming levelling-up white paper.
The nub of the Prime Minister’s case was that the mayoral experiment is working for cities and their suburban hinterland, and that the towns and countryside could do with a bit of it.
“Local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities, and to do that we must now take a more flexible approach to devolution in England,” he said.
Which could mean “a directly elected mayor for individual counties”; or devolution “for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses”.
Ideas on a postcard, please, to our recently-departed columnist, Neil O’Brien. Or, as Johnson put it, “come to Neil O Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services”.
Put like that, the Prime Minister’s case sounds lamentably underdeveloped, open to fresh thinking, or simply cautious, depending on how you look at it. But he, Robert Jenrick and others will have to make the following decisions.
At the outset, whether or not to push for uniformity, or something very close to it. Both of the main schemes that would ensure it are out: regional government and an English Parliament.
Labour tried to make the North East a start-up zone for regional government, and the project was duly trounced in a referendum – the event which gave politics early sight of James Frayne and Dominic Cummings.
An English Parliament would institutionalise potential conflict between a First Minister for England, who would run the bulk of the country, and a Prime Minister stripped of responsibility for nearly everything other than foreign affairs, defence and security policy.
Which returns us to the options on Johnson’s table. He could sit back and wait for local leaders to come to him. And the map of local government in England would continue to look much like the patchwork we see today.
There is a good case for this approach. “A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome,” as Johnathan Werren wrote on this site.
The downside is that if that, with so many cooks preparing the broth, nothing much might be served up: experience suggests that county, district, town and parish councils don’t easily come to agreement.
Some senior Tory figures in local government, and elsewhere, are keen on unitarisation – some has already happened (as recently in Buckinghamshire); more is happening (as in North Yorkshire), and more may happen still.
But ConservativeHome finds no appetite near the top of government for an attempt to force amalgamation on unwilling Conservative-controlled authorities: the whips have enough trouble with agitated councillors and backbenchers, thank you very much.
Nonetheless, experience suggests that if the Government wants more local mayors, it will have to push for them – and, if local people are given a say in a referendum, they tend to push back.
Remember May 3, 2012: the day on which ten cities voted for or against new mayors. Only one, Bristol, went for change. Since then, some authorities, such as Hartlepool, have voted to abolish their elected mayors; others, like North Tyneside, have not.
There are further problems about political legitimacy. The Tees Valley has a population of about 1.2 million people. Kent has one of approximately 1.8 million. It follows that if an elected mayor can work for it might for the other.
Government sources also named other well-populated counties, such as Lancashire and Warwickshire. But would it be practicable to bundle ones with smaller populations together under a single mayor?
One of the problems that is wrecking the police commissioner project is the sense that there is no real local ownership of whoever is elected to the post. Might not enforced, multi-county, amalgamated mayoralities run the same risk?
But if, to use the Prime Minister’s own example, a county or city comes together “to improve local services like buses”, who or what is to take charge, if not a Mayor?
Mention of an actual service is a reminder not to put the cart, structure, before the horse, services. The first question is what to make more local. The second is how to do it.
Which takes us to the mayors in place already. Consider Ben Houchen in Teesside. He already controls education for people over 18. Wouldn’t it make sense for this to be joined up to that provided to people over 16 – given the stress he places on skills?
Andy Street made the same case for the West Midlands in a recent column on this site. Why not go further, and let Houchen, Street and some of the other mayors pilot more local control?
For example, they could retain a slice, say, of airport passenger duty, vehicle excise, and VAT. Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan recommended the full devolution of the last in The Plan, opening the door to tax competition between local authorities.
Johnson said that counties could “take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new job or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes”.
“Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs.” The Prime Minister was careful to add that “we need accountability”.
But the thrust of his case was there are fewer “irresponsible municipal socialist governments” and that “most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.
Johnson has no experience of running a major domestic department. His sole government experience at Cabinet level was in the Foreign Office.
Nonetheless, he has been mayor of the biggest city in the whole country, serving two terms. He will need to draw on that experience as he decides which localist options to take.
One thing is certain – though it won’t be what anxious MPs and councillors want to hear. If the mayoral experiment had needed existing councils’ and sitting councillors’ agreement to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.
So since the Prime Minister wants more localism, and rightly, he must ready himself for a row – to add to the one already raging about housing and planning. One can’t serve up a muncipal omelette without breaking eggs.