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21 July 2021

Why a dose of centralisation would be good for British devolution

The Conservative government needs to form an idea of what an ideal metro-mayor’s powers are.  

By Stephen Bush

Do you have to wear a mask on public transport in England? As it stands, the answer is: “no” when you are travelling across England by any form of public transport; “yes” when you are travelling on the Metrolink in Greater Manchester; “no” when you are using other forms of public transport in Greater Manchester; “yes” when travelling on Transport for London services; “no” in most of Yorkshire, but in West Yorkshire you will have to wear a mask at bus stations. In the West Midlands, the west of England and the Tees Valley, the answer is, “No, but please if you could wear a mask we’d really appreciate it.”

That mess of regulations in part reflects the different levers available to the different mayors. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, can make it a compulsory condition of carriage on Transport for London services that you wear a mask – but he can’t make it a criminal offence if you don’t. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, can make it a condition of carriage on the Metrolink tram service but not on buses or commuter railways. Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, has similar powers over transport to Burnham, but has opted to go for a blanket approach of asking commuters to wear masks rather than a half-and-half approach, as has his Labour counterpart in the west of England, Dan Norris, and the Conservative Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen. Tracy Brabin, the newly elected West Yorkshire Labour mayor, has opted to make it compulsory in bus stations, which she does control, in order to “nudge” people into wearing them everywhere.

When you look at devolution more broadly, the picture becomes yet more confusing. Burnham cannot compel passengers on most public transport in the Greater Manchester area to wear a mask, but he does control £6bn of health spending and can hire and fire the chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police. Khan can do what he likes as far as the conditions of carriage on Transport for London services are concerned, but he cannot hire or fire London’s police chief. Street cannot implement congestion charging but he has broader powers over buses in the West Midlands than Burnham does over Greater Manchester. He has no powers over policing. In addition, while it is essentially true to say that all the metro-mayors created by David Cameron have more powers than Khan, they also have less autonomy, in that they have to negotiate with the local authorities in their patch, while the London mayor faces significantly smaller limitations on his powers. 

The problem has been sharply illustrated by the end of the national mask mandate, but it speaks to a broader problem with devolution in England – which is just how patchy and uneven it is. That’s a problem for several reasons, the first of which is basic accountability: for devolution to work properly, voters need to have a clear sense of what it is and isn’t devolved. Someone who moves from Birmingham to London shouldn’t suddenly find that their mayor has a radically different set of powers.

In addition, both voters and the press need to be able to make reasonable comparisons between devolved institutions. It’s become a truism to say that the three most effective metro-mayors are Burnham, Street and Houchen. I think this is broadly true, but even those three mayors have quite different powers available to them. It’s not really fair to compare the record of Street with that of Burnham, or the record of Street with that of Houchen. This places real limits on meaningful scrutiny of the metro-mayors, and also, I think, real limits on public understanding of them. Someone moving from Manchester to London should know that, broadly, the things they complained to Burnham about are now the responsibility of Khan, and vice versa. 

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There are some good reasons to limit the powers of one mayor and not another. If you think, as I do, that one of the United Kingdom’s big economic problems before the pandemic was that England’s great cities outside London are not very economically productive and have generally poor transport links, you might think that the best way to resolve this was to devolve power and money to Burnham, Street, Norris and Brabin but not to Khan. I think this is probably the wrong approach: it’s a good argument to devolve less money (or simply to have a Barnett-style formula that links cash settlements across the metro-mayoralties to one another) but not to have a different set of powers.

But one place where I think the government’s devolution agenda (such as it is) is going wrong is that the government lacks a clear idea of what it wants to devolve. It knows what it dislikes: mayors such as Burnham and Khan, who it feels are too inclined to pick fights with it. But while the government will intermittently praise Street and Houchen (and sometimes not even just to criticise Burnham and Khan) it lacks a clear sense of what powers the ideal metro-mayor should have. Indeed, sometimes in private ministers will complain when Houchen or Street are “too mouthy”.

There are two problems with the government’s rhetorical commitment to giving local authorities and metro-mayors more powers “when they ask for them”. The first is that, in practice, this commitment is pretty derisory: the government doesn’t want to devolve power to anyone who might disagree with it on how to use it, which essentially means that in practice, the government doesn’t really want to devolve more powers.

But the second is that the “well, you put together a proposal” approach means the government ends up with uneven and confusing devolution, and no clear strategy on how to get the most out of it. In addition, they end up in a constant feedback loop where the metro-mayors and other devolved institutions demand more powers but don’t ever fully use the powers they have now, and in which no-one is fully clear what, exactly, is devolved and isn’t.

Now Boris Johnson is putting a lot of faith in the idea of more devolution deals as a way to achieve his aim (such as it is) of levelling up the nations and regions of the UK. If he wants to succeed, he’ll need to put a lot more thought into what exactly is devolved and to whom. We talk a lot, not unreasonably, about how the British state in general and Johnson’s in particular is addicted to centralising functions and powers. This is true. But ironically, a centrally imposed and broadly communicated shared set of powers for all the metro-mayors would probably leave voters and the country better served than a piecemeal and patchy devolution settlement.