It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. On looking around this Chamber, I note many familiar faces from a previous debate that took place here in October 2010, when my hon. Friend John Stevenson initiated a similar discussion. Things have moved on significantly from that point. I support the Government’s policy to initiate referendums in 10 of our cities, and I also commend Liverpool council for taking the plunge and deciding for itself that elected mayors are the future form of leadership. That is certainly the case for our major cities, and I hope it will be for many more of our local authorities, starting with those currently enjoying unitary status. This must be just the beginning.
By way of background, I should say that I come to the debate as someone who served for 26 years as a councillor. I served for 14 years under the two-tier system when, between 1980 and 1994, I was a member of the former Great Grimsby borough council. At that point, the electorate decided that I needed a rest. I think it was something to do with describing myself as the Conservative candidate that resulted in my enforced absence from the council chamber for five years. At that time, the party was going through a period that comes to all parties: that of unpopularity. Such a time almost always follows a long period in power. Labour Members will know exactly what I mean, as many of their own councillors have gone through a similar process in recent years.
When I returned to council, thankfully, the two-tier system had been swept away. In my area, that had the added bonus of doing away with the unloved—and I would perhaps go as far as to say hated—county of Humberside. How much better the unitary system is. I would create unitary councils headed by elected mayors across the board, but because I support the localist agenda, I would leave councils free to determine the powers they want to give their mayor within a menu set by legislation.
I accept there are geographical difficulties in some of our larger and more rural areas, in the sense that it is more difficult for individuals to become local personalities when a county is 70 or 80 miles wide. In my county, Lincolnshire county council covers the distance from, for example, Gainsborough in the north to Spalding in the south, which is some 70 miles. That presents difficulties in what is inevitably a presidential-style contest where party labels mean less. However, at a time when—let us be honest—the profession of politician is not the highest ranked in the country, that is just one of the plus factors. More independent-minded individuals without that party label may well emerge; or, indeed, there may be individuals with a party label who have a much more independent streak. One has only to look at the current mayoral race in London to appreciate that although party allegiance is there to indicate to the voter the general direction of travel, it is a far looser allegiance than in a traditional council election.
We cannot wait for local authorities themselves to decide whether to opt for an elected mayor, as, with perhaps a few rare exceptions, they will not. We need to break down the existing cosy arrangements. Many councils will not even opt for a referendum and let their voters decide.
The hon. Gentleman is outlining some of the plus points, and I congratulate him on his success in obtaining the debate. The concept of directly elected mayors has been around for some time. Can he explain why, in most of the mayoral referendums, the turnouts have been fairly derisory—in some cases, they have been down to 15% to 20%—and why the majority of those who did participate voted against the concept?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I accept the fact that turnouts have been low—that is an inevitable consequence. The simple fact is that it is a rather techy, anoraky subject in which we politicians, but perhaps few others, love to engage. However, democracy is about having the opportunity to participate in the process. The public are at liberty to engage, or not.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in many cases, the difficulty in getting people engaged in the mayoral political debate is testament to the kind of political disengagement that has arisen from a council system that people do not feel has served them? In Bristol, we are struggling with voter apathy because people do not feel that the political system is serving them well and they are fed up with party politics. That disengagement is in itself testament to the need for a mayor.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from the question of why we should have referendums and the issue of engagement, does he share my puzzlement that on something as real as a mayor, we have a referendum, yet something as unreal and obscure as police commissioners is imposed on us?
To be honest, I would have mayors imposed on councils. As I have said, the best form of local government is single-tier authorities headed by an elected mayor. I also favour more directly elected positions within society and fully support the introduction of elected police commissioners.
Returning to my point about councils not choosing to go down this road voluntarily, I would not go as far as Simon Jenkins who said in last week’s Guardian that mayors would replace “shadowy civic mafias.” I also do not agree with him that cities have been held back by party complacency. That may well be true in some cases, but to blame political parties per se is simply wrong. I would argue that bureaucracy and regulation at a national and EU level has had a lot to do with it. Bearing in mind Sir Simon’s recent engagement in arguments about the planning system, I would say that that system itself has something to answer for—at least until the Minister with responsibility for planning, my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, got to grips with it.
I entirely agree with other parts of Simon Jenkins’ article. He states:
“the London mandate secured more cash for police and transport and spattered central London with lofty towers.”
I am not so sure about that one, but he goes on to state:
“In the past four years…Boris Johnson has subsidised cycling and dug up every road. Like them or loathe them, these men have put city politics on the map. Hustings are packed. London’s civic life has never been so vibrant.”
In some respects, the campaign might not have been all that edifying, but it has certainly grabbed the interest of far more voters than a traditional council election.
It is the political process that energises and gives direction to our system of governance, whether at a national or local level. However, we can do better. We can transform politics by introducing more direct elections. Yes, many of those will be personality contests like the Boris versus Ken show. Whether we like it or not, personalities have always played a major role in politics, and leadership, in part, results from the individual personality of the person. However, from the public’s point of view, that is exactly what should happen. As I say, we must sweep away the existing cosy arrangements.
The petition threshold of 5% that is needed for the electorate to trigger a referendum is too large. If we support localism, as we all purport to, it should be made easier for voters to initiate the process. Obtaining the support of 5% of the people does not sound like a big deal—until one gets out on the streets to try to secure those genuine signatures. In the two unitary authorities that serve my constituency, that equates to more than 6,000 signatures. I can tell hon. Members that getting that number is extremely difficult. About 10 years ago I tried to do so, but local circumstances changed and the momentum was lost.
We need to reduce that threshold significantly. Councils should still have the opportunity to initiate a referendum, but we need to make it much easier for the public. Much is made of the potential downsides of having elected mayors, such as the possibility that extremists will be elected. On the whole, the British people are rather moderate in their political views. On occasion, they may elect an eccentric—some would argue that anyone who enters the political arena qualifies as being eccentric—but there is no real evidence that extremists would be elected. Electing an eccentric might seem rather British; electing an extremist is very un-British.
I welcome the fact that we have 10 referendums taking place next week in some of our major cities. That is a start, but as I have said, let us not restrict them to cities. My constituency straddles two unitary authorities, with two wards in North Lincolnshire and a larger part in North East Lincolnshire. There are three main areas of population: Immingham and Cleethorpes in my constituency; and Great Grimsby, a self-contained former borough seat soon to expand into Cleethorpes if the Boundary Commission gets its way, much to the horror of the locals.
As the Minister found out when he paid his first visit there a few weeks ago, Grimsby and Cleethorpes are joined at the hip, or certainly at the Park street border where we position sentries alongside the passport control barriers. More seriously, they are in effect one town, though with distinct identities. It is these provincial towns such as Grimsby and Cleethorpes, and many others—Huddersfield, Halifax and Scunthorpe, to name but a few—that are at risk of being left behind if we concentrate too much on cities. Cleethorpes, Grimsby and similar towns think that big cities get far more than their fair share as it is. We would like another advocate for our communities. Perhaps elected mayors in provincial areas, working in tandem with Members of Parliament, would be more of a thorn in the side of Governments of whatever complexion than a council leader. We must hope that that would be beneficial to such local communities. If, as is the case, the Government believe that elected mayors are desirable, then I say to them: get on with it and do not dawdle. Make it easier for my constituents and others to initiate the process of a referendum and let us see what the people think. I suspect that in many areas, particularly with a local push, they would go for it.
Of course, local councillors are not over-keen. It is a potential threat, a step into the unknown, and it introduces an element of uncertainty into the often predictable world where Labour win when there is a Tory Government and the Tories win when there is a Labour Government. But I say to them: take up the challenge. After all, many candidates for mayor will come from the ranks of existing councillors. I can think of half a dozen or so in my constituency who would be real contenders for the position.
Elected mayors would not be drawn just from the ranks of our existing politicians; representatives of the voluntary sector, business leaders, trades unionists and many more would be drawn in. The attraction of an executive position will have far more appeal to more people than the traditional role of a councillor. We need more individuals to become involved with our local parties, so that they can be considered for candidacy. Open primaries would help to bring more people into the process of selecting candidates. Too often, selection is by a small group—I know, as I have been one of them. Whatever can be said in its favour, it is certainly not open and transparent.
As I have said, we need to reduce dramatically the threshold for initiating a referendum. Let us put real power back into the hands of local people and make it much easier for the population at large to kick-start that referendum. In no way do I wish to play down the role of the traditional councillor—I would not have stuck at it for 26 years otherwise. There will still be an important job to do. Individual wards and communities need their advocates to argue not just in favour of things, but against them, too. With neighbourhood plans to produce and the opportunity for elected members to work more closely with our voluntary and charitable groups, churches and others, public satisfaction would increase.
Importantly, executive mayors need effective scrutiny. Scrutiny in its present form does not work, as I think many who have served on local authorities would agree. It is not sufficiently detached from the decision-making process. Scrutiny is seen as a necessary evil by any administration. Even when serviced by able officers, they will almost certainly be junior to the senior managers who are involved in the decision-making process. I have previously proposed that local authorities need an officer at director level who is not a part of the established service, but who is appointed by, and responsible to, a group of chairmen of scrutiny panels.
I digress. To return to my main theme, mayors can be passionate advocates for economic investment, but equally they can be powerful voices against developments that their local communities oppose. That allows me to put forward the thought that, although I favour unitary authorities headed by an elected mayor, that does not preclude smaller towns in that authority area having their own elected head. I know that my hon. Friend Rory Stewart favours that and will no doubt speak on it in a few minutes. Currently, in effect we have a two-tier mayoral system in parts of London, so we should not rule it out elsewhere. The elected mayors in London seem to rub along with the Borises and Kens of this world reasonably well. There will be tensions, of course, and these changes will alter the dynamics between various councils and individuals, just as another constitutional change I favour, an elected House of Lords, will change the dynamics between the upper and lower House.
I will now expand on what I see as the key functions of the mayor. I mentioned economic development and regeneration earlier, and they are certainly vital ingredients. Infrastructure and transport are essential. They are all part of a growing local economy. What is certainly essential is forceful political leadership—someone in charge. As MPs, we are all well aware that we live in a global economy. Business leaders travel from all over the world to consider investment decisions. In many of our overseas competitor towns and cities, they can meet with the top man or woman because they can be decisive and offer clear direction. Here, it is somewhat different—our decision-making process is often tortuous. Our mayors could be as decisive.
Yes, I favour my hon. Friend’s suggestion. The process of devolution and localism has only just started, and has a long way to go.
I note that those trying to undermine the elected mayor project have been saying that not enough high-profile potential candidates have come forward. That is perfectly understandable, until we know the outcome of the various votes next week.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the alleged reasons why high-calibre candidates have not come forward so far is a lack of control over budgets—that they want some kind of budgetary responsibility before they put themselves in that position?
I agree. My understanding, from the speeches I have heard the Minister make, is that where we are is only the starting point and there is much further to go. It is understandable that some of the high profile candidates have not yet come forward. The example of police and crime commissioners seems to indicate that once these positions become a reality, people do come forward. In my own police area of Humberside, the former Deputy Prime Minister, no less, has indicated that he hopes to be a candidate. Had a referendum for the post of elected mayor of Hull been approved, he may even have gone for what I suggest would be an even higher profile local position.
I do not know how many yes votes will be recorded next week, but even just one will be a step in the right direction. The momentum is with those of us who believe that elected mayors can provide a more determined and dynamic leadership, not because the individuals are better than the many hard-working council leaders, but because the position of mayor will be more prominent and will provide a better platform to give the leadership our towns and cities require in a competitive environment.
Two or three weeks ago, the Prime Minister gave a boost to the campaign with a reception in Downing street. On that occasion, I detected a real buzz about the place, not just from enthusiastic politicians such as myself—the Minister and other hon. Members were present and were equally enthusiastic—but, more noticeably, from the leaders of our business communities. Significantly, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a new mayors’ cabinet, giving mayors better access to Government and the first choice of many funding streams and regeneration initiatives.
Turning to a few comments that I noted from other hon. Members, the Centre for Cities has argued that, although they are no panacea for growth, elected mayors have the potential to support economic growth if they are given the right powers to do so. The
Wilson and Game, in their assessment in their book, “Local Government in the United Kingdom” noted that mayors
“may be few in number, but most, if not all, of these elected mayors have, in their own council areas, undoubtedly ‘made a difference’. They are far better known than their predecessor council leaders ever were; they have raised their councils’ profiles, and in several cases stimulated a change in their political complexion; and most are associated with a number of personal policy initiatives and campaigns.”
I am sure the Minister will take the opportunity that this debate offers to urge yes votes. It might be an exaggeration to say that this will be a new dawn for local politics—when politicians use such phrases, it is usually hyperbole—but it is certain that elected mayors are a step in the right direction. I hope that voters in our cities will vote yes, and that there will be a lot more yes votes to follow.
It is a great pleasure to follow Martin Vickers. I agree with an awful lot of what he said. However, I most certainly disagree with the most high-profile thing that he said about the Prime Minister’s advocacy. I do not want the Prime Minister to come to Coventry to advocate for an elected mayor. That would not go down nearly as well as it might in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
I cannot boast 26 years in local government as the hon. Gentleman can, but I did eight years as a member of Coventry city council before being elected to this place. It has long been my view—after about a year of settling in and getting to understand how the system worked, I became pretty disillusioned with it—that I do not believe that it works. I do not believe that it can be made to work.
In 2001, Labour proposed elected mayors. We set up a system that all hon. Members in this Chamber will know allowed for a petition to be raised, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, to get a referendum. Not many petitions have been raised. If I believed that the reason for those petitions not being raised over that intervening period was a high level of satisfaction with the current system and that nobody really wanted change, I assure the House that my support for the mayoral model would have waned considerably. However, the petitions have not been raised because we face, as Charlotte Leslie said earlier, almost total apathy in respect of local government. We do not have—we do not enjoy—local democracy in England at all; it does not exist.
There is also an impact on councillors. In what other walk of life would we consider it good and acceptable—something that we ought to continue with—to have a system where people know that their policies, credible or incredible, make no difference to their success. However, local government elections can be affected organisationally; we have all done it and participated in it.
Councillors and councils fall or stand on the national trend. Councillors know that. In 2004, the Labour party lost control of Coventry city council, not because we as a party lost control of it or because it was a bad council, but because in that year the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was somewhat unpopular in the country. It was as simple as that. We wound up with a Conservative council for six years, which fell in 2010, in large part because the local election was on the same day as the general election and, in an overwhelmingly Labour city, the turnout was well up and the Conservative council was swept away as a result. I do not think that that was a particularly good council—it was worthy of considerable criticism—but it knew, and we knew, that it would lose an election called on
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that support for local government, and more interest in local politics, would be helped by never having local elections on the same day as a general election?
I have not thought about it and I am not dead sure about the degree to which it would, but having a mayoral system in our cities—like the hon.
Gentleman, I would be interested in the proposition going further than just in cities—would provide some mitigation against the domination of national politics in local affairs. Of course, the national trend would still have an effect; to suggest that it would disappear entirely would be naive.
On the suggestion about replacing local politics with independents, I am sure that we all know people from our parties who share our beliefs but choose to cover their colours in particular parts of the country, because they know that if they wear their rosette and show their colours they will not get elected. Therefore, they stand as independents. That is, to a degree, dishonest.
A mayoral system, such as we are seeing in London and will see elsewhere, would force people to think well beyond the allegiances of their own political party and about the city as a whole: Coventry, for example. That would give people at least a degree of ability to buck the national trend. People would be, to a greater extent than exists at the moment, genuinely accountable to their local populations, surviving on their own abilities, popularity and the policies that they pursued and, therefore, their ability, to some degree only, to get themselves re-elected off the back of their own policies.
The mayoral system would bring those benefits and the potential for leadership. In saying that, I do not denigrate councillors. Many people dedicate themselves to local government over the years, toiling away, trying to make their cities and communities better places for little remuneration, but they are largely—it is not their own fault—unknown within the communities that they represent. Walking the streets of Coventry, the majority of people do not know who the leader of the council is. That is not the fault of the leader of the council. The Conservative leader of the council for six years, up to 2010, was largely unknown as well. The system prevents them from being able to give the leadership that is so necessary in the modern world.
Those of us who have been lucky enough over the years to travel and to mix and converse with leaders of cities in other countries, know that in many countries—those with which we have to compete—there is a far higher degree of self-reliance. People in cities in Germany do not look in much degree to Berlin, or even to Stuttgart or Munich, for leadership. There is a lot of leadership and a lot more powers in the city itself and, as a result, those cities are more successful.
None of the democratic deficit that I have been talking about, however, matters much to our constituents if it does not make a difference.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that continuity of leadership is important? In a city such as Bristol, where the council changes colours frequently, there has been a number of council leaders over the past 10 years. Recognising the council leaders is even more difficult, because they change so often, and that makes the long-term, strategic vision for an area far more difficult.
I am not so sure that I do agree. There are communities that are far more settled—there is more community in existence—and where people will be better known, although in many of our cities that is certainly not the case, because there is a turnover of population and a loss of community. It almost does not matter how long some individuals toil away at leading their city, the majority of the population probably do not know who they are.
I was about to move on to the potential benefits of bridging the democratic deficit, because none of it matters greatly to the majority of the people of this country or to the electorate in such places if it is not making a difference. Irrespective of our political views, how many of us believe that our cities are doing as well as they could? None of us believes that, so we ought to be looking for some improvement, not only for democratic reasons but for economic regeneration and performance.
Coventry, the city in which I was born and raised, is the most central city in England; we have excellent transport links, rail and road, to every corner of the country, we enjoy a pleasant environment for the city—the Warwickshire countryside is second to none—and we have an enterprising population. Why therefore are we not doing better than we are? With leadership, we could be doing that little bit better and be pushing that little bit harder. To return to the issue of democracy, in Coventry we would probably be demanding—with credibility—increased powers in order to be able to lead the city. In recent years, the people of London have managed to get from central Government increased powers over their own local government, under both Ken and Boris. The people of Scotland and Wales have managed the same, but otherwise our local government is so weak in comparison with Whitehall and Westminster that it has been unable to get the powers that it needs to represent properly its constituencies and communities, which deserve so much.
With a mayoral system, over time, local government would get those powers. I know all the arguments about not much being on offer, but that is not how things work. When we set up the London Mayor, there were far fewer powers than now, but the Mayors have been back to the well and asked for more water, as have Scotland and Wales. Would not powerful mayors in English cities ask for exactly the same? They would, and they would be in a far better position to get it.
Mayors would be a big improvement in how cities are run and in how the country is run. Think of the benefit of powerful people from the provinces—from Bristol, from Leeds—talking to this place from outside London and saying, irrespective of party, “Oi, mate! That ain’t how it works in the real world.” They would be listened to. I am afraid that I do not know who the leader of Leeds is, or of Bristol, although I know the leader of Coventry and who the mayor of Leicester is, but if someone like me, steeped in politics, does not know who the leaders of our great cities are, that is an indication that local government is not punching its weight in our country.
My right hon. Friend is making an interesting argument about giving cities more powers. However, in London the Mayor represents 32 local authorities, which is very different from a city such as Nottingham, which is too small to take on those extra powers. The opportunity should be on offer for city regions, rather than single local authorities.
My own party played with the idea of city regions when we were in power. We thought seriously about them, and they might work in some areas. I do not come from Greater Manchester, but my impression is that that area is a real entity. If so, a metro-mayor or whatever for Greater Manchester might make a lot of sense. The west midlands, however, is not such an area. The proposition that we were toying with was a city region from Telford in the west to Coventry in the east—some 50-odd miles—which is not a real community.
I agree with the hon. Member for Cleethorpes: we should build institutions on real communities—existing, recognisable ones that people already see themselves as part of and buy into—and give them the necessary and relevant powers. Let us have some real local government, not an imposed London template; let us look from the bottom up and not from the top down. What is Coventry capable of doing on its own? Let us empower Coventry to do those things on its own and, if Birmingham is capable of a different set of things, let us empower Birmingham to do those different things. Let us stop thinking from the top and start thinking from the bottom, if we want a revival of our democracy and the potential help to our economy.
Finally, from the point of view of my own little city of Coventry, I fear that, with Leicester already having a mayor, if Birmingham has one and we do not, we will lose a relevant voice and a say. I do not want my city to be any less influential than it is—quite the reverse.
Thank you very much, Mrs Main. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend Martin Vickers and, in fact, to the three Cs showing the common sense at the heart of local government: Cleethorpes, Coventry and my hon. Friend John Stevenson.
It is a great privilege to be in the Chamber today, because the debate shows why local government matters. The reason why the debate is good is that it is one of those rare occasions in the House of Commons when one feels that people know what they are talking about. Often in the Chamber of the House, I wonder where the expertise is. In Westminster Hall today, we have more than 20 years’ expertise and all the speakers are talking about something that matters to them and that they know about. That is why we should all support local government, more local government and still more local government.
The past 120 years have seen an astonishing destruction of British local government, resulting in the situation that all of us see day to day in our surgeries: the great sense of ennui. Mr Ainsworth referred to the anonymity of councillors—the sense that people do not know to whom to speak. We continually encounter citizens’ frustration with the system and their terrible feeling that at any moment, some regulation, law or arbitrary directive from an anonymous and unseen official will get in the way of what they want. Whether it is the imposition of a supermarket on a town where nobody wants it, the imposition of a wind turbine on a valley where nobody wants it or the closure of a care home, a community hospital or a school, local communities show again and again that they are desperate to express their desires, but they have no way of doing so.
That, of course, brings local communities to their Members of Parliament, and a great thing that is for us, as Members of Parliament, because we enjoy it enormously; it takes us away from the strange, arbitrary abstractions of the House of Commons and gives us something useful and practical to do. From a selfish point of view, we are grateful that we can deal with such local issues, which are more real than the issues we deal with in the House of Commons most of the time. However, we should not be dealing with such things, which should not, ultimately, rest with the House of Commons. It would be better for us, local communities and Britain, if we located such issues with a directly elected local mayor.
That is true partly because Britain and British identity have changed. Britain is no longer obsessed with projecting national power. The fact that we are, for some bizarre reason, completely obsessed with Scandinavia—watching Danish television or looking earnestly at Finland, wondering whether its educational statistics are better than ours—shows that this country is increasingly interested with the local, not with the projection of grand power.
We are therefore interested in making things work well for our own intimate communities, and we have astonishing skills when it comes to delivering such things—skills that did not exist 120 years ago. However much we grumble about education, this country is far more deeply educated, healthy and engaged than it has ever been, and we see that in our performance at local level. Everybody in this room will see the most astonishing things being done in their local communities. In Cumbria, for example, we have seen the creation of affordable housing in Crosby Ravensworth driven entirely by the local community. We have also seen something similar on broadband, and we are now getting fibre-optic cables to the most remote valleys in the whole of England. After perhaps 1,000 hours’ work, communities are signing up 80% of the people in them for broadband, waiving wayleaves and working out how to dig the trenches for the fibre-optic cables.
However, we are not going far enough, and we could do much more. The sad truth behind a lot of these stories is that, in the absence of a local champion, things are not working as quickly or as well as they should. To take the example of broadband, officials are still telling us, despite all the work that local communities have done, that state aid regulations and procurement complications are delaying projects, meaning that they will take 12 months longer than they need to. Communities are being slapped in the face, and despite putting in all that work and energy, they are not getting what they should at the end.
All over the world, we see models showing why local government works. We see them not just in Germany, which the right hon. Member for Coventry North East mentioned, but in France, in places such as Montpellier and Lyons. Thirty years ago those were depressing places, but under strong local leadership they are now splendid places. That is not because they have more money, but because the people controlling the money are located in Montpellier and Lyons, not Paris, and understand local needs and local imaginations.
We can also see these things in Scotland. Alex Salmond’s biggest mistake is to believe that his performance is an argument for independence; it is not—it is an argument in favour of decentralisation. Everything that has gone well in Scotland over the past decade has happened because of the tapping of local energies within a national context, which is the precise balance we want. We must use the strengths of a vast country and a vast economy. This country is no Denmark or Norway—it is Great Britain, and our economy is 12 times the size of those countries’. We have Sterling, we have our Foreign Office and we have our Army, and within that national context, local things can be done well. That is what the Scottish National party—at its best, when it understands these things—shows locally, not through a push for independence but through a push for autonomy.
Why do we want local mayors? They will harness and tap local energy and the educated, healthy, dynamic population we have created over decades. They will be able to use local knowledge and to understand local issues. In London, I have a big problem explaining exactly what is happening with broadband in Mallerstang, in Cumbria, because it involves complicated local questions. If I take the issue to a Minister, the civil servant will whack it back and say, “No, no, it’s much more complicated than that. There are big issues about state aid and procurement.” It is difficult to get such things across. We therefore need somebody who uses local knowledge.
Finally, we need somebody who uses local trust. Elected local mayors are a way of rebuilding not just local democracy but national democracy. If we can tap the new British genius for the local, create a connection between citizens and elected local mayors, and restore faith in politics at the most local level—the politics of the city-state, where every citizen confronts their representative on the street, lives through the practical problems and decisions of politics, and understands the messy compromises, the courage and the idealism of politics in their market square—we have a hope of restoring faith in not only the local, but the national.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate Martin Vickers on securing this important debate.
I wanted to take part in the debate mainly because my home city of Manchester is one of the local authorities that will hold a referendum on local election day next week. I should start by laying my cards on the table and saying that I have never been a supporter of elected mayors, but if the people of Manchester vote for a mayor next week, I will not lose any sleep over it, because the issue is not massively important to me or people in Manchester. Indeed, apathy has been the big winner so far.
I certainly do not object to holding a referendum on whether local people want an elected mayor, but the nature of mayoral elections means they always end up being about personalities, rather than politics. London is a good example, and the debates going on at the moment clearly show that the issue is personalities, not politics. The debate is not about the merits or otherwise of the policies put forward by the two front-runners, but about whether people dislike the fact that Ken Livingstone has not paid his taxes or think that Boris Johnson should have come home early when the riots started. Transport and other issues that should be debated have fallen by the wayside while people look at the personalities of the two front-runners.
There is a question about whether we should force local authorities to have a referendum against their will, given that plenty are considering going down that route or have already gone down it. In Salford, for instance, local residents triggered a referendum, and an election is taking place next week for a mayor. That said, only 18.1% of the 171,000 eligible voters took part in the referendum. None the less, there was a comfortable majority in support of having a mayor. I rather suspect that the turnout in Manchester will be significantly higher than 18.1%, but only because the vote will be on the same day as the local elections. People will want to participate in the local election, rather than the referendum for an elected mayor, so I seriously doubt whether the higher turnout will mean there is more interest in the mayoral referendum or the idea of having an elected mayor; that will not be what pushes people to take part in next Thursday’s election. Certainly, in my experience of knocking on many doors during the election campaign of the past few weeks, I have not seen massive enthusiasm for the referendum. In fact, only one person has raised the issue with me on the doorstep, and that was someone who simply wanted to know my view. She had no particular view, and was not even sure whether she would vote in the referendum.
The hon. Gentleman’s experience is similar to mine. Does he think that part of the reason is, first, that the Government have not made it clear what extra powers are available, and secondly that they have not consulted local people about the geographic cover needed to reflect what the local community is, and have instead imposed a Whitehall-led model on our core cities?
There are several reasons for lack of enthusiasm. I suspect that in Manchester it is partly to do with the fact that the political parties are concentrating more on the local elections than on trying to force people out to vote in the referendum. I shall come on to that, but I do not believe that we should have the referendum on the same day as the local election. I think that the crux of the problem is that we are not giving people the opportunity to debate the issue of the mayoral referendum, because there are other issues that they want to discuss. People are interested in who will be their local councillor—not in whether we shall have an elected mayor for the city of Manchester.
I understand the Government’s argument for holding the referendum on the same day as the local elections, because clearly that saves an awful lot of money.
I want to endorse what the hon. Gentleman said. It is extraordinary that when there are issues that divide political parties—whether alternative vote, or, as now, the mayor—as polling day gets closer, the political parties focus on getting their councillors elected, and there is no debate on the issue. With hindsight, the Minister may want to reflect that, if there are referendums that do not fall along party political lines, combining them with party political elections is not a good idea.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point, and I have always argued that we should keep individual elections separate—whether local, general or European—so that we can at least try to focus people’s attention on the issues on which they are being asked to have an opinion.
If elected mayors are so worth while—enough to hold a referendum on them—should not we have ensured that we could engage in proper debate, by putting the referendums on separate days? Then the community could have a real debate on the issues, and the merits or otherwise of an elected mayor, instead of seeing it as a bit of an afterthought, which is how it is being viewed in Manchester.
Having said that I am not a fan of elected mayors, I accept that they can be successful. A lot will depend on the calibre of the candidates and the person elected. Because there will be a mayor in Salford, if Manchester votes no that will be a great opportunity for Salford, which will be the only local authority in the area with a mayor. That mayor will be able to raise Salford’s profile. I mean no disrespect to Salford, but it has for many years played second fiddle to Manchester, which is seen as the big city. The danger is that if Manchester votes yes, and we end up with a Manchester mayor, the Salford mayor will become peripheral to the Manchester mayor, who may be a famous person or celebrity, or a high-profile politician, and seem significantly more important than the mayor of Salford. I stress that I am not trying to show disrespect to Salford, but generally Manchester has a high profile and Salford does not.
In my view, if Manchester is going to hold a referendum on a mayor, it would be better if the question was on a mayor for Greater Manchester—a point that was made by Lilian Greenwood. There are two reasons for that: first, it would have fitted far better into the model of the joint authority between the 10 Manchester local authorities; secondly, it would have avoided the prospect of a Manchester mayor trumping the mayor of any other local authority, and being seen as more significant than the mayors of other local authorities. In future, if we are to have mayors, we should consider the most appropriate area that should be covered. We should not think of basic, single local authorities, but consider what would be best for the area. In Manchester that would probably be Greater Manchester; in the Coventry area it would be Coventry; but it would be different in different parts of the country, depending on the make-up of local authorities.
I shall concentrate on points that have not been covered yet in the debate, Mrs Main.
Anyone who visits my constituency will see a large, red brick clock tower, affectionately referred to as Old Joe, which is a reference to Joe Chamberlain, who was said to make the weather. That was a reference to the fact that he was, in the 1870s, a ceremonial mayor, but turned himself within three years into the effective Prime Minister of Birmingham. Any decent mayor will make the weather and take on powers, rather than use what central Government give. However, a word of caution is needed: if powers are given without resources, those concerned may acquire responsibilities that they cannot fulfil, enabling central Government to wash their hands of things for which they would rather not take responsibility.
I urge the Minister to think about that, even if the result in the referendum is much worse than he expects. I have been talking to people on the phone: when I first saw the question I thought it was extremely favourable—but then there is the question of how it appears cold, on the ballot paper, without any real debate. The majority of people know that there is a lord mayor; when the ballot uses the term “mayor” they think, “Is this a different mayor?” and cannot work out what the difference is. We talk about civic mayors, and Ken, and they say, “What is it, then?” We may not get as good an outcome as hoped, and I hope that at that moment the Minister will use the rather nice “get out of jail” card from the Localism Act 2011—the reference to other qualifying authorities, which I assume means that there can be devolution of power to local authorities even if they do not choose to have a directly elected mayor.
The Minister must face up to something very uncomfortable. When, in 1997, the Labour Government started devolving power, it did a good job in dealing with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; but because there was deep division in the Labour Government about whether we wanted regional government or city regions, and we went down the regional government route, which the people, unfortunately, did not particularly like—and given, also, that we have devolved power to London—the way we devolve power in England is a big unresolved constitutional issue. It must be dealt with in the context of the outcome of the mayoral elections.
The Minister’s task is not made easier by a measure that I hope we shall somehow manage to lose in the next 12 months—the perpetual review of constituency boundaries. At the moment the Birmingham constituency boundaries are concurrent with those of the city of Birmingham. We have 10 MPs and 40 councillors within those boundaries. If the boundary review goes through we shall be all over the place. I shall have bits of Old Warley; bits of Birmingham will be across the M5; Solihull will come in. A city mayor’s area will not even be concurrent with those of his or her councillors or MPs. That is pretty barking—and that will happen after every general election, so there will be no continuity. Therefore, if we genuinely want to devolve power to units that mean something, we will have to consider the size of cities. The problem is that Birmingham is too big. If we were London we would be three or four boroughs. Rather than having the local government function of overcoming Whitehall, we neatly duplicate them and perpetuate the problem. Our wards are larger than anywhere else in Europe. Multi-councillor wards have 20,000 electors, so they are not big enough to be strategic, but are far too big to be local. The process of having one third up for election every four years with a fallow year, people’s relationship with their councillor, and the large size of councils is not good for localism.
First, I suggest that the Minister consider not holding future referendums on the same day as other elections, because doing so does not allow for proper debate. Secondly, we must knock on the head the notion that so-called independents are the answer. Independents are candidates who cannot rely on local party workers who provide us with a low-cost election machinery. If we want independents and a fair playing field, we must talk about costs, but we do not want to go there either.
Thirdly, if after the elections not enough cities take the opportunity—we do need to devolve power—we must look at the whole of England and the constituencies to see what powers are appropriate. A key one—we will look to the Minister to see what the Government do—is what we do to devolve responsibility and money allocated in relation to public health. If the Government are serious, serious amounts of money must be devolved. If they are not, and if the idea is just a fig leaf, we will not have a proper debate. We must also consider local units. I would expect Birmingham, which for the first time in many years is facing up to deciding what it stands for and what it is, to look at the way it is governed, and the size of its wards, as well as the devolution process to find natural communities.
Elected mayors are good. We have seen them work on the continent. They will be successful only if they work in units that people can relate to. Power must be devolved sufficiently so that it is meaningful to local people; otherwise, the electorate will see it as a self-indulgent process, when they are far more concerned about how to pay their bills and whether they will still have a job tomorrow.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Martin Vickers on securing this debate, which is incredibly timely given that we have elections in eight days. He mentioned that I initiated a debate on this very subject about 18 months ago, when probably one or two fewer hon. Members attended than are here today. Interestingly, Sir Peter Soulsby was there and went on to become an elected mayor. It will be interesting to see whether any hon. Member here today subsequently becomes an elected mayor.
I said during that debate 18 months ago that the idea of elected mayors was flying below the radar, and that is probably still the case to a certain extent, but I believe that they have the potential profoundly to transform our democracy. Perhaps things are beginning to change in the sense that referendums will be held in 10 of our great cities next week. In addition, three mayoral elections will take place at the same time: in London, which we all know about, Liverpool and Leicester.
The UK started its journey back in 2000, when the Labour Government introduced the concept of elected mayors; but unfortunately, for whatever reason, it never took off. I am delighted that the present Government have taken up the baton. There is still cross-party support—two great advocates are Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis— and it is great to see other parliamentarians taking an interest. There have been 38 referendums, and only 14 have said yes, which is shame, but I think that is partly because local politicians have been resistant to the idea and national politicians have not been willing to drive it forward and promote it. Again, I think that is changing. Some councils are using their two-thirds majority to introduce elected mayors, as Liverpool and Leicester have done; some have gone for majority decisions to call referendums; and there has been the odd petition; but the 5% threshold is putting many people off, and I will raise that with the Minister in due course.
I am conscious that I do not have much time, so I shall concentrate on two aspects. First, I believe that elected mayors can be a huge benefit to local government. In this country, we often underestimate the importance and significance of local government. Local councils already have powers covering planning, procurement, economic development in their own areas and housing issues, but our politics are dominated completely by the centre, and that is fundamentally wrong. We underestimate what powers they already have and could use, but often do not use effectively. Elected mayors will be personalities who are transparent, known and visible to their local community, and they may be willing to use existing powers more effectively.
I want to encourage the Government to continue what I think they are starting to do: to continue the decentralisation process and to give greater powers to local government, whether using the elected-mayor model or the present model. Our country is far too centralised, and we need to spread power out. We have done that successfully in Scotland and Wales, and there is no reason why we cannot do so in the rest of the country.
If mayors are elected for a four-year term and have a mandate from the local people, they have the opportunity to implement their manifesto. At present, Carlisle city councillors are elected in thirds. That creates chaos, because they are never quite sure whether they will be in control. It is fair enough if the council has a majority that will carry it through two elections, but otherwise councillors are always thinking about the next election and not planning for the future.
Four-year terms, with good powers for elected mayors, will provide the opportunity to transform their localities. Not all elected mayors will succeed. There will be failures and eccentrics, but that is democracy, and we are part of a democracy. In four years, local people will have the opportunity to remove that person and to bring in someone else. People in the local area will decide who provides the leadership.
National politics will be transformed, and that is a real positive. At present, people come to Westminster, climb the greasy pole, and fall off, which is the end of their career. Now, we have the opportunity for national politicians, who may have made their name nationally, going out and doing something in their localities. Their national career may be over, but their local career might just be starting. They can be figureheads for the places that they came from, which is tremendous, because they would bring experience and contacts to their local areas.
The reverse is also true. I am amazed at how few nationally successful politicians have been council leaders. Elected mayors who are major politicians in their locality may ultimately become MPs. If they subsequently become
Ministers, they would bring tremendous executive experience of running an authority, perhaps of only 250,000 people with a budget of £100 million, but they would have direct executive experience, which many hon. Members do not have. When Ministers are first appointed, they sometimes flounder because they do not have that experience.
I want to allow the maximum amount of time for the Opposition spokesman and the Minister, but I want to ask the Minister whether he will continue the commitment to elected mayors even if the referendum outcomes are not as we hope? Clearly, I should like all 10 cities to embrace the idea, but if only three or four do and others do not, is he committed to continuing the process? Will the Minister encourage further referendums for smaller cities, as has been done for the big 10? I would love Carlisle to have the opportunity to decide in a referendum whether to have an elected mayor.
I accept my hon. Friend’s point, and I do not see why not. If Cumbria, for example, had an elected mayor, smaller areas within Cumbria could easily have the same mechanisms and form of government.
At present, the 5% threshold has been a barrier to referendums and to people deciding to raise a petition in their areas and pursuing the idea of a referendum. I hope that that threshold can be revisited and, if possible, reduced to a level where it would be far easier for someone who believes in the idea locally to go out and obtain the requisite number of signatures. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Main, and I congratulate Martin Vickers on securing this timely debate.
We all accept that there are various systems of local government, one of which—the executive mayoral system—already works perfectly well in a number of locations around the country. Hon. Members have spoken about executive mayors in glowing terms, but they are not necessarily a panacea. They can work extremely well, but so can alternative models of local government.
The previous Government recognised that the executive mayoral local government model has a place and can work well and offer strong leadership, and as a consequence, we legislated for it. As hon. Members have said, a petition needs to be signed by 5% of the population to meet the threshold to hold a referendum, but that is not an insurmountable barrier. If there is strong support in a local area for the introduction of an elected mayoral system, people will put their names to a petition and oblige the local authority to hold a referendum. If there is majority support, a mayor will be introduced. However, even when that 5% threshold has been reached and a referendum has followed, it has not always resulted in the introduction of an elected mayor. It is therefore important to put local people in the driving seat. If people want an executive mayor as their form of local government, they should be empowered to introduce one.
Rory Stewart mentioned the possible introduction of mayor in his area. Again, if there is support in the local community, and if he wishes, I urge him to secure a petition and get the 5% of signatures necessary to ensure that a referendum takes place. If there is support for the idea, the hon. Gentleman will have the mayor for whom he wishes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cleethorpes on his honesty. It seems that he does not really favour a margin of democracy but wishes to see mayors being imposed. I do not think, however, that that is how we should proceed, and for me it is important to ensure that local people are put in the driving seat, rather than seeking to impose a Westminster template on local people.
My right hon. Friend Mr Ainsworth talked about apathy. He makes a strong point because apathy is the real enemy of democracy. Such apathy, however, is not necessarily due to the mechanism through which we organise local government but, at least in my view, to the diminution in the powers available to local authorities and to the way that, all too often, national politicians and the media have continually run down and denigrated local government. I believe that local governments provide an invaluable service to local communities and deliver vital public services. They are a useful mouthpiece for the concerns of local people through the auspices of their locally elected councillors.
It is also unhelpful and adds to that sense of apathy when local governments are seen as a delivery arm for central Government—that applies to both parties, and we must start to move away from that. My right hon. Friend mentioned the difficulty that some people find in identifying their council leader, but to some extent that is also true about people’s ability to name their local MP. It is down to the dynamism, commitment and ability of locally elected representatives—whether councillors, council leaders or MPs—to ensure that their local communities know who they are.
Does my hon. Friend think that it matters if people do not know their council leader, as long as they know their councillor? Is it not more valuable to have 55 councillors coming up with collective solutions, with each bringing up the needs and wants of their ward, than a single elected person who is supposed to come up with all the solutions?
I certainly think that the role of elected councillors is essential to local democracy. Dynamic and effective local councillors are a useful way for local people to raise their concerns, and more often than not, they are a great advocate for the communities that they represent. As well as asking whether local people want an executive mayor, we should be doing all we can to support, train and provide locally elected councillors with the necessary tools, to ensure that they can represent their communities as effectively as possible.
I do not think that there is evidence of a huge groundswell of support or a great appetite for elected mayors, and that is why I object to the Government’s imposing mayoral referendums. Obviously, if a majority of people support an elected mayor, they will be introduced in those areas. I suspect, however, that in a number of cities around the country, local people will vote to stay with the existing system and reject the Government’s proposal. People want decent public services, and I hope that the Minister will provide some reassurance about that. They want to see jobs and prosperity in their local community, and for their local authority to help secure economic development. That requires strong leadership, which, as I have said, can be provided by an elected mayor, but also by the existing model of a strong leader and cabinet.
We have seen evidence of that system around the country. In my home city of Derby, strong local government leadership has led to the complete regeneration and transformation of our city. The same is true of Nottingham, which is represented by my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood, where a real lead was taken to develop the transport infrastructure and the regeneration activities of the local authority have transformed the city. The same is true for Leicester, Manchester and Leeds. The transformational activities of a local authority can be achieved without the introduction of an elected mayor.
The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border touched on the need for us to rebuild democracy, and said that perhaps we should look at devolving more powers to local government to achieve that. That is a goal that we should seek to accomplish. A few weeks ago, the Local Government Association published “Local Government’s Magna Carta”, which talked about putting local authority powers on a statutory footing, so that they cannot become a political football or the delivery arm of whichever Government are in power at the time. That is a way to rebuild democracy to support local authorities. Whether we adopt a system of elected mayors or retain the existing system, we need to guard against personality politics, which is the important point made by Mr Leech.
In conclusion, let me mention our party political system. Some hon. Members have been a bit embarrassed about our democracy. They seem to want to move away from our party political system, on which our democracy is based, towards personality-based politics. That is not a healthy way in which to run our democracy. I am proud of our party political system, and if a few more of us stood up for it and recognised that it is the foundation of our democracy, perhaps some of the criticism and the brickbats that we have seen in the media over the past few years would not be quite so pronounced.
Elected mayors have a role to play. They are not a panacea; they are one tool in the locker. Let us not put all our eggs in one basket. Let us allow 1,000 flowers to bloom. If local people want it, give it to them. If they do not, support powers for local government in a different form.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to respond to what has been an excellent debate with some really first-class speeches. I congratulate my irrepressible hon. Friend Martin Vickers on coming back to this subject. He seems to have momentum behind him these days. I had not realised that he had been rested in his political career, but he is certainly back with a vengeance, and I know we can count on his presence for many years to come.
It is an opportune moment to be debating this issue because we have, through the Localism Act, the opportunity to hold referendums on whether there should be a mayor in what was originally going to be 12 of our cities. Already, two of those cities, Leicester and Liverpool, have decided not to wait for the referendum to take place and have, through a resolution of their local councils, decided to go ahead with elections. In the case of Leicester, our former colleague, Sir Peter Soulsby, is now the mayor, and a vigorous election campaign is currently being fought in Liverpool to elect the first mayor on
There are three broad reasons why it is time for cities to consider the case for a mayor. We would not have created these referendums if we did not think there was strong case for the people voting yes. It is particularly true for our great cities that they do not simply compete as part of the United Kingdom with other countries; they compete with each other—whether it is Nottingham, Birmingham or Leeds. They compete with Barcelona, Bordeaux, Lyon, Frankfurt, Bangalore, Beijing and Shanghai. They are international cities that deserve an international champion to speak up for them on the international stage.
I was struck by a conversation that I had with Joe Anderson, the current leader and mayoral candidate for Liverpool—he is not a member of my party. He said that the penny dropped for him when he was representing his city at the World Expo in Shanghai. He was there talking to the Chinese authorities, seeking to make the case for inward investment into Liverpool. The officials said to him, “We can’t understand why all of these cities from around the world, Chicago, Frankfurt and so on, have sent their mayor to Shanghai to represent them and you have sent an official from the council.” Then he got into an explanation of the English municipal system, but by that stage the argument was lost and he recognised what was needed.
Last week, we had a debate in Nottingham, in the constituency of Lilian Greenwood. When we were talking about this issue, the deputy leader, Mr Chapman, gave us a fascinating insight. He said, “Whenever I’m on the continent and I need to explain who I am, all I say is, ‘Je suis le mayor.’” That says it all; if someone has to claim to be something they are not—something that every other city they are competing against has—surely that makes the case for the prominence internationally that our great cities deserve and have had over the years? Bear in mind that the cities we are talking about are already world renowned and they need to continue to be so.
It is important also that those cities have a strong voice domestically. We all know the importance of our great cities. The reputation and standing of our cities is not what it has been in past decades and centuries. Not enough people in the country know what is going on in Leeds or Sheffield. They do not know the industries that are prospering. They do not know that Bristol is one of the most successful cities in the country in attracting investment into digital media. They do not know about the contribution that the digital gaming industries of Birmingham are making in the international world. They need to know not just what is going on there, but who the leaders of these cities are.
My observation as a Minister—and I know this from talking to Ministers from previous Governments—is that the contrast between the volume of the voice of our great cities and that of London is enormous. I dare say that more people in Nottingham, Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds know the name of the Mayor of London than know the name of their city council leader. That cannot be right, and it is true nationally.
I have noted, as have my predecessors from previous Governments, that when the Mayor of London wants something, we know about it. We have to take the phone call. If we do not, we will find out what is needed for London through a megaphone. Mr Ainsworth made mention of this as well. Mayors demand more powers. For example, the Mayor of London has made a bold attempt to extend his transport powers. No one invited him to do that. He is perfectly properly standing up for the people whom he represents and, I hope, will continue to represent, and wants to extend his powers further. I want every city to do that. I want it to be a nightmare for Ministers that we have a legion of mayors from around the country banging the table, demanding more powers and making it impossible to say no. The Prime Minister has agreed to create a cabinet of mayors and to allow them to come and sit round the Cabinet table, and it is right that they should do so. The power of the existing mayors is enormous. The budget of the city of Birmingham is £3.5 billion a year, which is more than that of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage
(Mr Vaizey) is a Minister. He may do better trying to become mayor of Birmingham. I am talking about very significant powers.
I thank the Minister for giving way; I am enjoying his speech. If the people of one of the great cities having a referendum next week, such as Manchester, Nottingham or Leeds, decide that they do not wish to have an elected mayor, is he suggesting that the Prime Minister and Ministers will not listen to those voices and invite them round the table?
Of course the Prime Minister will listen to the voice of the cities, but if we are to create a cabinet of mayors—a cabinet equivalent to the Cabinet of Ministers—we want people with a mandate who can speak for all the people in the city. When the hon. Lady talked about Nottingham, I was disappointed that she talked it down. She said that it was too small to have an elected mayor. My goodness, this is a city that has two of the world’s greatest universities, with research and development facilities that are a beacon to the world, two football clubs and Test cricket. Nottingham can punch higher than it does at the moment.
I have two minutes left, so I must make progress.
Nottingham could benefit from greater powers. In fact, what the hon. Lady said should be a clarion call to the people of Nottingham to raise their ambitions and to live up to what they are capable of. The city could once again be renowned nationally and internationally. To do that, it can only help to have someone who speaks for the whole city, and who has a four-year programme that they have put before the people to bring change to the city. That will be available to every city after the referendums next week. I hope that the people will take the opportunity to say yes. In 100 years’ time, in all of these cities that say yes, we will look back on a succession of mayors to whom people are erecting statues because they have done great things for their cities. We will look back at an historic change that will be for the good of the cities and for the whole of the United Kingdom.