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English mayoral elections rebooting the devolution agenda

11-05-2017

By Shaun Nolan, Local Government and Police Director, CIPFA

While last week’s local and combined authority mayoral election may have been overshadowed somewhat by the buildup to the general election, the results offer more than just a litmus test of what we might expect in June. 

Away from the political events unfolding at a national level, the elections, specifically those for the six new metro mayors, could prove a step change in the rebalancing of local representation and powers across the country.

The groundswell towards greater local devolution has been slow and the current architecture remains overly predicated on what works best for larger city regions rather than necessarily all parts of the country, but nevertheless the election of English city mayors is a significant step in a series of devolution developments that have seen more freedoms and incentives move to the local area. That ranges from the original city deals and local enterprise partnerships to creating combined authorities, the local retention of business rates agenda and now metro mayors.

Through stronger leadership and representation, these metro mayors can help drive economic regeneration and bring public services even closer together across organisational and local authority boundaries within the metro region concerned and in a way which better meets the needs of local areas. Perhaps the impact that these new mayors could have on our housing crisis could end up being one of the most significant benefits on the model.

For all the new mayors, both Conservative and Labour, this is the point to recognise the opportunities presented through co-operation and, with Sidiq Khan in London, call to increase their devolved powers.

The top prize in the devolution movement must surely be greater local fiscal flexibility. The UK still remains has one of the most centralised economies of our western partners even with the additional freedoms planned for metro mayors.

The supplementary precepting powers for metro mayors and the wider 100% retention business rate pilots are both important steps in the right direction, although the latter may be delayed by a year for all areas, given the national election, but hopefully no worse. We still need to go further and return to local government the powers to set tax levels, both business and residential, in a responsible way that responds to the needs and wishes of their community. 

Of course, this level of devolution comes with risks as well as rewards and finance professionals will play a key role in implementing new funding models within new governance arrangements. With greater collaboration and shared accountabilities, devolution may challenge our traditional approaches to financial management.