Opinion piece by Cllr Ron Beadle, Gateshead Lib Dems, in today's Newcastle Journal
Having overwhelmingly rejected devolution in 2004, the North East and Teesside will be led by “metro mayors” exercising devolved powers by 2017.
One response is an ironic shrug, because it is the very Tories who fought against devolution who have forced it through 11 years later – confirmation that the big political parties regard referenda as a last resort, and whatever the people decide may safely be set aside later.
After all, the executive mayor model has had a very chequered electoral history. Of the 11 mayoral referenda held in 2012, only two cities voted for one; in Newcastle the idea was rejected by 61% of electors and in Hartlepool voters rejected the mayoral model they had had for the previous decade.
To understand why the Tories are so keen on elected mayors requires us to understand four things.
First, the Tories want to see the size of the state reduced. In areas like the North East, whose economic fortunes have required significant state support, this is difficult to do. So, other sources of income need to be found, hence local business rates are to remain with local authorities and hence the creation of a single mayor, able to do the deals necessary to attract investment.
Second, the Tories believe that economic growth is undermined by too much local democracy. So, next time a major developer wants to build housing in the green belt, those pesky local councillors won’t be able to stop it because a mayor keen to gain investment will ignore local objections.
Third, the Tories believe that accountability works best where single individuals (MPs, mayors) are empowered to take decisions and then to put these to a public test. If decision-making is vested with a single individual then they will be properly accountable in a way in which a regional assembly, a local council or any other shared decision making system cannot.
Fourth, the Tories know that people with power, including government ministers and private investors, would rather work with another single powerful figure, capable of delivering on their promises, than with a messy and slow democracy. Some of these arguments are more powerful than others and are important in understanding why metro mayors make sense to Tories.
But, having spent five years warning my own party about the perils of working with Tories, I now find myself making a similar warning to the leaders of the North East – the Labour politicians who have signed up to this deal are walking in to a trap.
First, Labour’s record in winning mayoral elections is abysmal; populist candidates in Middlesbrough and Doncaster, outsiders in Hartlepool, Watford and Bedford and many others can attest to the ways in which big political parties are especially vulnerable when elections focus on personality.
Second, once planning and transport powers are taken away, the case for reforming local councils becomes self-evident.
For a start, much of councillors’ work is taken up with these issues but, once they are no longer empowered to take these decisions, then the obvious question is why do we need so many of them?
In Gateshead and Newcastle, Lib Dem oppositions are already arguing that the number of councillors should be reduced. This argument is rejected by Labour but the case will become unanswerable once metro mayors are in place.
Equally, the case for merging local authorities to reduce officer costs will become pressing as well.
And third, but perhaps most significantly, we should look at the record of Boris Johnson, the nearest thing we have to a metro mayor, to see just what might happen as the mayor tries to replace public funds with private. The London mayor has granted planning permissions for high-rise developments which Londoners see as blighting their sky-line in exchange for investment funds.
What will the equivalent be here – fracking in Northumberland, housing developments on Newcastle’s Town Moor? Who knows? But one thing is clear, hard-headed developers won’t be giving us their money for nothing.
All of these arguments should urge caution on local leaders but have apparently gone unnoticed or been superseded by the extra money and powers that come to the region with the deal.
While the overwhelming response to the devolution deal has been positive, and its advantages may well be worth the risk, we should not be naïve about its dangers.
Ron Beadle is deputy leader of the Lib Dems on Gateshead Council.