Call this devolution?

A group of five middle-aged to elderly people (one South Asian man, one white man and three white women) holding up a map of West Yorkshire with the five boroughs (Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield) marked. Behind them is a river with two boats visible, and a plate glass building behind to the left and a red brick building behind to the right.
The leaders of West Yorkshire’s councils

I saw a tweet earlier this week from the political scientist Matthew Goodwin, a noted media and Twitter Brexiteer, hailing the “devolution deal” that came into force this past weekend which paves the way for mayoral elections this May (coronavirus permitting, of course) for a “metropolitan mayor” for West Yorkshire, the county which includes Leeds, Bradford and the surrounding area. “£38 million budget & powers over housing, transport, etc., and access to £1.1 billion to invest in region. Send power down not up.” Really?

For anyone who grew up in the 20th century and remember Tony Blair coming to power with promises of devolution for Wales and Scotland, the term is associated with law-making powers being devolved from Westminster to a national assembly which had real powers over policy areas such as health and education. Blair also promised a referendum on a mayor for London and this was delivered in 2000; Ken Livingstone then served two terms as mayor (first as an independent, then as a Labour mayor) before losing to Boris Johnson in 2008. This was not spoken of as devolution but rather as some form of democratic city-wide authority for London which had not had one since the GLC was abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1986. The mayor’s power is in limited areas, mostly transport and policing, but the London Assembly only has the power to reject his budget, not veto his policies. Once his policy decisions pass the ‘consultation’ phase (and he is free to reject the results of any consultation, as Livingstone did when extending the Congestion Charge to inner west London in his second term), they require central government approval.

The West Yorkshire mayor will be the head of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority whose governing body consists of council leaders and some additional borough councillors; it is not, therefore, directly elected at all. The ‘devolution’ will consist of some finance decisions currently taken by the government being transferred to the mayor, but some powers will also be transferred upwards from local councils to the mayor; public transport, for example, is currently the responsibility of borough councils, and the new authority will also control a network of strategic roads, which again are currently the responsibility of local government (apart from trunk roads which are controlled by central government) which is controlled by an elected council, not a single executive mayor. The mayor will also take over the powers of the elected police and crime commissioner. So it is not quite true that this just represents a transfer of power ‘downwards’.

And all the power-to-the-people rhetoric cannot disguise the fact that there has been no referendum on this; it is the fruit of several years of negotiation between the local councils (many of which favoured a “Leeds City Region” authority which would also have included a number of districts of North Yorkshire) and central government. When referendums were held in three boroughs (Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield) on directly-elected mayors for their authorities in 2012, all were rejected (indeed, all but one of ten such proposals that year were). So, let’s not pretend that this is a victory for people power; it’s a limited transfer of policy and spending power (not law-making power), some of it from central government and some of it from elected local councils, to a single directly-elected mayor whose decisions will need to be rubber-stamped by government, not a locally-elected body.

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