Imagine if, in one of her first acts as First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon announced that, in spite of the result of September’s independence vote, Scotland was to declare independence anyway, on the basis that opinion polls now showed a majority of people in favour of independence and therefore there was no need for the decision to be approved in a referendum. David Cameron and his government would surely treat it as an outrage.
Why, then, has the Chancellor this week seen fit to announce that the people of Greater Manchester are to have a directly elected mayor? Two years ago the very same question was put to the people of the City of Manchester in a referendum and the answer was a resounding ‘no’. They, along with residents of eight other cities, decided that they did not wish to have an expensive extra layer of municipal government to indulge the latest fashions in Whitehall. Yet now they are to get one, whether they like it or not.
The Treasury argues that the soon-to-be-imposed mayoralty differs from the one Mancunians rejected because it covers the whole of Greater Manchester, as opposed to just the city of Manchester. But the fact that it covers a much wider area, and involves the transfer of more powers than the plan rejected in 2012, is all the more reason for obtaining a popular mandate for the change. Back then, nine out of 11 cities who were asked if they wanted a mayor replied that they did not. The Chancellor seems to believe that northerners are there to be invoked rather than consulted.
As we have seen so many times with referendums on EU treaties in other countries, the people are being treated with contempt for giving the wrong answer. The referendum over, it was — to quote the failed Democrat candidate Dick Tuck — a case of ‘the people have spoken, the bastards’.
There is plenty of political rationale behind the announcement of a Greater Manchester mayor. Polls show that 80 per cent in England like the idea of greater devolution of power to the regions, as more power is being devolved to the Scottish Parliament. George Osborne knows that his programme to reduce the deficit is only half done and, indeed, is going backwards at present. As a result, the cuts needed after the election will be far harsher, going far deeper (especially as the gargantuan NHS budget is being ‘protected’). Devolving budgets to a regional mayor creates a buffer between himself and the councils who so bitterly opposed his last round of cuts.
This has a certain logic: every lollipop lady taken from the streets, every closed day centre, will be down to decisions taken in town halls. But scheming of this kind is apt to backfire. Mrs Thatcher calculated that residents shocked by their inflated poll tax bills would chuck overspending Labour councils out of office so as to reduce their bills. But instead they blamed the government for introducing the poll tax. By creating regional political powerhouses George Osborne risks inflating opposition to Westminster reforms. The result is likely to resemble France, where strong regional government locks horns with central government and makes reform more difficult.
The London mayoralty has not yet really suffered from this problem, because for only two years of its 14-year existence has the incumbent of City Hall come from a party other than that in Downing Street. (Although elected as an independent the first time around, Ken Livingstone quickly returned to the Labour fold.) No London mayor can complain of decisions being imposed from afar, since the national government sits only two miles away. The Greater Manchester mayoralty will be very different. It would take an extraordinary piece of gerrymandering to deny Labour victory in a Greater Manchester mayoral election. The reality will be supercharged local government opposition whenever the Conservatives are in power.
What is it about the governance of Greater Manchester which the government finds so unsatisfactory? The city has been one of the great regional success stories of the last 20 years. Money and people have flowed into the city, reversing decades of decline. The absence of a Greater Manchester mayor has not prevented the city from building a tram system nor from developing Britain’s only two-runway airport other than Heathrow — a rare triumph of public sector ownership.
The places which are struggling at the moment are not the big cities which may be next for elected mayors — Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle — but the secondary places: the Blackburns, the Sunderlands, the Bradfords. But these seem likely to be left out of Osborne’s vision for Northern powerhouses, with no grandly-titled mayors, no high-speed rail services and not much road investment either. And has any city been more badly let down by local government than Birmingham?
This week has hardly been a good one for the concept of directly elected mayors. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has seized control of Tower Hamlets after a report by accountancy firm PwC condemned mismanagement and a crony culture on the part of the elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman. There is a good reason why the people of Manchester rejected the idea of creating a new fiefdom over their city, perhaps envisaging some of the same problems which have occurred in Tower Hamlets. It is a shame that George Osborne has chosen to ignore them.