George Osborne does. He’s has just struck a deal with the heads of councils in greater Manchester to give the city more powers and a bigger budget, in return for a directly elected mayor to take overall responsibility for the region.
The chancellor called it “a massive moment for the north of England”.
But voters in Manchester and other cities were asked if they wanted directly elected mayors in 2012 and most rejected the idea. So why are city mayors making a comeback now?
What’s the problem?
Politicians from all sides have noted that the UK is more centralised than most other developed countries. Spending tends to stay in the hands of central government rather than being devolved to the regions.
OECD figures from 2010 show Britain trusts its regions less than most comparable developed countries, with central government retaining control of nearly 73 per cent of total public spending.
But the situation is likely to be much worse in England than in the devolved authorities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
As a rough comparison, the think-tank New Economy Manchester says the local authorities in Manchester only get to allocate just over a quarter (27 per cent) of the £22bn spent on the area. In practice, it adds, central government “also wields significant influence” on the “local” budget.
What will Manchester get under the new deal?
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority – a kind of super-council made up of the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester – will get:
– a new devolved transport budget, details yet to be confirmed
– strategic planning powers
– a £300m housing investment fund
– an “earn-back” deal worth £30m a year for 30 years
– law and order powers currently held by the Police and Crime Commissioner.
Since the numbers are not finalised, we don’t know whether all this will mean that significantly more of that £22bn will now be in the hands of the local authorities.
The vice chairman of Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Sir Richard Leese, said today: “Our ultimate ambition is for full devolution of all public spending in Greater Manchester, currently around £22 billion a year, so that we either influence or control the whole amount.”
There is no mention in today’s document about reforms to the parliamentary system being discussed in the wake of the cross-party “devo max” offer made to the Scottish electorate on the eve of the independence referendum.
Nobody is talking about English votes for English laws, or giving England its own parliament.
But Mr Osborne has evidently been very keen to secure the agreement that the newly empowered authority will be chaired by a directly elected mayor.
Why does the government like elected mayors?
Opinions differ, though it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the cities that held referendums in 2012 have traditionally found themselves firmly under the control of Labour councils.
That is also true of many areas of London, but a Conservative still managed to win the mayoral election.
Asked what the attraction is for the Conservatives, Prof Colin Talbot from Manchester University offered us a one-word answer: “Boris.”
He added: “The political calculation is: if they can manage to win in London, which is essentially a Labour city, then maybe they can make some inroads in the northern cities.
“Basically, these would be media-driven elections and they can pour money into it.”
He predicts a “personality Tory” with a high public profile would be chosen to stand in Manchester (“not Esther McVey – she’s from Liverpool – but someone like her”).
Professor Colin Copus from De Montfort University thinks there could be more to it than cynical politics.
He told FactCheck: “Within the two main parties, there are groups of people who clearly see the idea of a directly-elected mayor, with that direct link of accountability between the voters and the local leaders, as a good thing. There are also people who are opposed to that.
“Councils want more and more powers. If you are going to devolve, what government wants in return is for that to be based on a democratic underpinning. You want to ensure there is a local link to the voters.
“In Birmingham there are 120 councillors. You need 61 to be the leader of the council. You only need 32 of your colleagues to vote for you. The electorate effectively shrinks from 650,000 voters to 32.
“You don’t want the leader of Greater Manchester to be selected by a couple of hundred councillors in a meeting.”
Do people want elected mayors?
In a word, no. Or that is the conclusion you might have drawn from a string of referendums on the issue held in large English cities in 2012.
Across the 10 cities – Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield – only Bristol voted yes.
Count up the total votes cast in all the referendums, and 59 per cent voted no to 41 yes.
Of 51 referendums held so far in councils of all shapes and sizes, 16 have resulted in a mayor taking office and 35 were rejected by the local population.
But Prof Copus says the deal being put on the table in Manchester is so different to the status quo facing voters in 2012 that there could well be a different result.
So is this real devolution?
We don’t know enough about the numbers to know whether Manchester is being offered the control over its own budgets that the devolved administrations enjoy.
It’s worth noting that Mr Osborne has completely avoided talking about the political dimension of the devolution question today.
He has stayed silent on the question of whether Scottish MPs should still be allowed to vote on UK-wide spending in the Westminster parliament or whether there should be a new English parliament.
Prof Copus told us: “I think the three main parties are absolutely desperate to avoid discussion of that.
“I don’t think that any devolution from any British government at Westminster to the English regions will be comparable to that given to the Scottish government or the Welsh Assembly.
“People are talking about ‘devo max’ and ‘devo Manc’ – but this is devo diluted.”