Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.
Conservatives have always had an uneasy relationship with devolution. Philosophically, decentralisation sits well within the conservative tradition of empowering people and places to make their own decisions, and restricting the centralising tendencies of the state.
We might naturally think of Burke’s little platoons, de Tocqueville’s foundations of American democracy, or Disraeli’s social reforms.
But at the sharp end of politics it is Conservatives that had to confront some of the worst abuses of decentralised control in the past, from Militant’s municipal control of Liverpool in the 1970s to Scottish separatism today.
And it is Conservative councils, particularly in the party’s rural heartlands, that have been most resistant to the imposition of powerful new mayors with a direct mandate to replace existing county and district councils.
It is tempting, on the basis of this recent history, to see the worst in plans to devolve power and control to a new cadre of city and county mayors.
Some fear the creation of more Sadiq Khans: figures who at times use their positions more as a rabble-rousing soap box than a mandate for delivery. Others ask why a Conservative Government would deliberately cede control of Britain’s biggest cities to local electorates that increasingly vote Labour.
And even those more supportive of decentralisation urge caution on grounds that England’s mayors are still relatively new and untested.
These objections are understandable, but they are not particularly convincing. The truth is that devolving power to more and stronger mayors is not just philosophically within the conservative tradition, but also economically and politically sensible for the Conservatives to pursue.
It offers an opportunity for a Government beset by challenges on other fronts to “give back control” to the places that most need levelling up, address the UK’s great economic weakness – poor regional governance – and should boost the Conservative vote too.
There are three reasons why conservatives should embrace a new mayoral moment. The first is the overbearing power of Whitehall in British politics. Conservatives rail against the ratio of tax to GDP but just as pernicious is the share of tax raised and spent centrally versus locally.
Just five per cent of tax revenue is raised locally in the UK, a third of the level in France and a sixth of that in Germany. Of that revenue, only a quarter is spent locally, compared to half in the US and three quarters in Canada.
And it’s getting worse: between 1995 and 2017, the share of public spending controlled below central government fell, from 26 per cent to 23 per cent, despite rising almost everywhere else in the OECD.
Even in London, which has enjoyed increasing levels of autonomy since the mayoralty was established in 2000, only eight per cent of revenue spending is currently controlled by the mayor. In other areas, this is far lower: in the West Midlands, just 0.4 per cent of the revenue budget is controlled by Andy Street; 84 per cent is controlled by national government.
And while Sadiq Khan’s control of Transport for London and affordable housing funding means that 43 per ccent of capital spending in London is controlled locally, in other regions this is far lower: just 26 per cent in the North West and 28 per cent in the West Midlands.
This centralisation is not just a block on local democracy – depriving local places of self-determination and control – it is a block on overall growth, too. Painstaking evidence collated by academics like Professor Philip McCann shows that countries with a layer of regional or “meso” government tend to grow both faster and more equally.
This is because local areas act as both local laboratories – trialling new policies to attract investment, support jobs and upskill workers – and competitors – forcing local leaders to be more ambitious and learn from what works.
The second reason is that, despite being new, mayors are not untested. In fact, in the short time they have been in place in England many have demonstrated the virtues of the mayoral model.
In the last few years, dilapidated regional bus, tram and train systems have started to be reinvigorated. In the West Midlands, Andy Street has streamlined the skill system to drive up apprenticeship numbers and quality. While Ben Houchen has overseen the doubling of Foreign Direct Investment into Tees Valley from almost £5 billion to almost £10 billion between 2016-19.
Conservatives can rail against the fact that some of these schemes were delivered by Labour mayors. But the reality is many of these services were neglected by national administrations of different colours over the last few decades.
And at a moment when central government is being pulled in multiple directions, from Ukraine to the cost of living and inflation, mayors offer a vehicle for getting things done. If devolution is the price of delivery, then so be it.
Third, mayors offer a route for the Conservatives to win. In every area outside London, mayoral turnout has risen steadily over time and name recognition is high. Six in ten Mancunians can correctly name Andy Burnham and four in ten Teessiders can name Ben Houchen as their respective mayors, compared to the one in ten voters who can name their council leader.
And, because people know their mayors, when they do good things voters are more likely to vote for their party.
Take the Red Wall seat of Hartlepool. Between 2012 and 2018, Conservative performance in Hartlepool almost exactly tracked nearby South Tyneside. But after Ben Houchen’s election in 2017, the Tory vote share in Hartlepool has started to tick up. In 2021, it was four points higher than South Tyneside, and by 2022 it was a massive 18 points higher.
This is not simply because the Hartlepool electorate contains more latent conservatism than nearby areas: Hartlepool is demographically similar to Sunderland, South Tyneside and Gateshead, so the Red Wall realignment should have played out evenly in all of them.
This suggests a “Houchen effect” that has boosted the reputation of the party in the area – and points to the possibility of Conservatives using mayoral delivery to increase their political popularity across the Red Wall.
In future, the Conservative beachhead established at the last election may well be built upon by Mayors in North Yorkshire, Hull and East Riding, Cumbria, and the East Midlands. And in the event of a future Labour government, these may be the Conservative outriders that give people confidence to vote Tory again.
So mayors have demonstrated their potential. But they have done it with one hand tied behind their backs.
Whitehall’s funding streams are so complex, and so tightly held, that the Levelling Up Department alone has 16 distinct funding pots that local areas can bid into, including one to fund public toilets. Mayors have very limited ability to raise local revenue for local priorities, and few direct incentives to grow the local economy to support local investment and infrastructure.
In the Levelling Up White Paper, Michael Gove rightly set out ambitious plans to expand the mayoral devolution model to every area of England that wants it – and many counties and city regions are currently negotiating deals. This is a good start.
But we should go further – by giving mayors a single funding settlement similar to those negotiated with Whitehall departments and devolving 1p in every £1 of local income tax revenue – equivalent to £6 billion a year – to fund new responsibilities over local trains, skills and energy systems.
In return for more power, mayors should submit to additional accountability, from strengthened mayoral scrutiny panels, select committee questioning and greater local tax raising. This would strengthen local democracy, while also extending its reach.
In the last five years, Whitehall has taken back control of power and money from Brussels. It is time to give back control to Britain’s historic cities and counties.