Avon Local History & Archæology – ALHA – does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s an organisation for local history and archæology in the Avon area, serving some 80 affiliated societies, with a collective membership of about 10,000. Founded in 1976, it has outlived Avon County Council, recognising the economic and social – and therefore historical – unity of the area, not so much separate from as special within the grand historic counties of Gloucestershire and Somerset. In 2011 ALHA launched its annual Joseph Bettey Lecture, named after the Bristol academic responsible for Wessex from AD 1000, Rural Life in Wessex 1500-1900, The Landscape of Wessex and other books that present our history from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in.
ALHA also holds an annual spring conference, with this year’s entitled ‘The rocky road to democracy and freedom: from king John to mayor George’. In the wake of Magna Carta, Bristol’s first mayor may have been the one chosen in 1216, another concession made by ‘Bad King John’. The first directly elected one followed in 2012, the renowned, red-trousered Wintonian, George Ferguson. London’s first mayor was in 1189, the first directly elected one in 2000, yet more evidence of how Bristol tends to mimic London’s every move. Professor Murray Stewart’s closing talk at the conference, ‘The elected mayor: democrat or autocrat?’ provoked vigorous audience reaction. As well it might, because one of the reasons for having an elected mayor was identified as “more direct communication with central government”.
So it seems that having an elected mayor as the key to city devolution is less about restoring civic confidence, more about training better beggars. It isn’t about giving local folk the power collectively to shape their own lives; it’s overwhelmingly about putting in place a network of local fixers who can be summoned to Whitehall for instructions whenever any smoothing needs to be done.
Keep that point in mind, because there’s a familiar theme behind every local government reorganisation. At the time of the ‘big bang’ reforms of 1974, official explanations referred the reader to the problems: the previous local local authorities were “too small” and there were “too many of them”. Size canbe a problem: there’s a relationship between it and functional competence and that’s what underlies the idea of subsidiarity. Being over-numerous though is not a problem for local authorities or the communities they individually serve. It’s not a problem they have any reason to recognise, let alone worry about. It’s only a problem for outsiders, more especially for those who have to deal with them all. The drive for fewer and fewer councils is about improving the London regime’s range of effective control.
Every reduction in the number of councils is accompanied by a reduction in the number of councillors. Replacing committee government by cabinet government has concentrated power even further and left the remaining councillors with little to decide, and therefore little reason to stand. Progressively replacing elections by thirds with whole council elections is already cutting by two-thirds the number of opportunities for democratic involvement by voters.
The ultimate aim is surely to have directly elected mayors everywhere, covering huge areas – though certainly short of regions, which pose an actual threat to centralism. A gaggle of municipal Caesars voted into dictatorial power for four years, with no means of popular redress in the interim. The result is ‘stable government’. But it’s not what could be described as bottom-up vital democracy.
Do not imagine that what has begun in the big cities will not touch the shires. The current Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill allows for mayors for combined authorities that include all (or just part) of a county council area. A quarter of Ireland’s county councils have chosen to style their chairman ‘mayor’. Although these county mayors are not executive mayors, they set a precedent that may, one day, produce an elected Mayor of Devon or Hampshire or Somerset. Not very long ago, a Mayor of the North East – Greater Tyneside but with a vast rural hinterland – was perhaps the most preposterous idea in politics; now it’s a real possibility.
This is a measure of how unconservative the Conservatives can be in re-shaping the meaning of words. It’s also a measure of London’s ability to get areas that are nothing like London to imitate its thoughts and actions, whereas doing things differently is actually what’s needed to give them an advantage over it. The onward march of the mayors is but one example of this. Tony Blair’s devolution of power to London was designed to evoke as few memories as possible of the old Greater London Council during Ken Livingstone’s term as its last Leader. So the GLC became the GLA, the Leader became the Mayor, and London Transport became Transport for London. Since then, we’ve seen Transport for Greater Manchester, Transport for New South Wales, Transport for Edinburgh, Transport for Ireland and, most recently, Transport for the North, which the Government now proposes to put on a statutory footing. The first step to a northern regional government? There’s unlikely to be a Transport for Wessex: the chronic under-funding of our region demonstrates the London view that if we think we have transport problems we must be imagining them.
Against this dismal backdrop, the Cornish experience is all the more remarkable. Devolution of power to Cornwall is finally happening, so one cheer for that. It’s inadequate and it’s undemocratic, so only the one cheer. What’s to be devolved will allow better integration of public services and therefore produce better outcomes for less money. It’s the case for devolution in a nutshell. But what’s to be devolved will not allow Cornwall to decide its own future. The crucial powers over housing and planning needed to halt the destruction of Cornwall’s communities and environment remain in Greg Clark’s hands, demonstrating that devolution is not defined by what’s devolved but by what’s retained. Governments, aloof from it all, keep the important powers; councils take unpopular decisions they couldn’t shape but will be blamed for anyway. Inadequacy is compounded by a lack of democracy; key powers are to be handed not to Cornwall County Council but to quangos like the Local Enterprise Partnership, to those who have never fought an election, let alone done so successfully, yet are still allowed to set local priorities because they’re rich. It’s like the 20th century never happened.
What’s most remarkable about Cornwall however is that local institutions that already exist are being entrusted with anything at all. Cornwall is the first rural county to make such gains, just as it was the first royal duchy back in 1337: forms of precedence that all help to build a case for more powers to follow. It’s also the first area not to be forced down the mayoral route considered de rigueurfor the conurbations, where a single directly elected focus is currently lacking. (The Government was recently defeated in the Lords on this point, but that’s far from being the end of the parliamentary debate.) It has to be said that if the conurbations lack an elected focus it is the Tories that the Tories have to blame for that because it was they who abolished the relevant county councils in 1986 and 1996. Without putting in place a regionalreplacement worthy of the name.
Who has current responsibility for devolution? The Ministry of Justice used to be the Department for Constitutional Affairs but constitutional affairs are now firmly the province of HM Treasury. This became clear this month from the launch of a paper setting out the Government’s ‘productivity plan’, Fixing the foundations. It contains some interesting facts, such as that London accounts for 28% of the UK’s GDP, while New York contributes 7% of the USA’s and Berlin just 5% of Germany’s. The comment that ought to follow is that both those countries have federal systems of government that prevent the over-concentration of economic activity by preventing the over-concentration of political activity. The printers seem to have missed that bit out. An unfortunate omission.
There’s a section devoted to Mr Osborne’s fixation on elected mayors. It quotes research showing that cities with fragmented governance perform badly. It doesn’t point out that one reason why governance is so fragmented is that the London regime has taken power after power away from local councils because they can’t be trusted to toe the party line. Returning a few with strings attached doesn’t address this key issue. Moreover, so long as devolution is to business-dominated quangos rather than to those untrustworthy councils, joined-up governance will remain elusive.
So too, it seems, will consistency. Fragmentation wasn’t judged a problem when the Tories abolished those county councils. They talk too of a Northern Powerhouse, yet power is something that will not be exercised at the northern level: the Northern Powerhouse will be directed from the Chancellor’s office and delivered across a fragmented region by locally elected metro-mayors acting as his district commissioners. How long is the north of England going to put up with this colonial-style regime? It’s a vital question because the future of regionalism in England hinges on the willingness of northerners to lead the revolt against London divide-and-rule. We’d love the revolt to start in Wessex but we face different issues – regions are different and that’s why we need to empower them all – and so we must watch and wait for our own moment of opportunity.
It cannot come too soon. The Treasury’s paper bemoans the fact that England has as many as 353 councils, with 18,000 councillors, all able to put a democratic spanner in the works. (It doesn’t point out that France has 37,000 councils, linked in a labyrinth of joint authorities, yet still manages to survive in the modern world.) The tone is unmistakeably that economic survival depends on rooting out democracy. Investors won’t come here if they have to persuade – in public – some irritating people who just don’t understand how corporate deals are done. Without effective scrutiny, before decisions are taken, the whole thing is unavoidably suspect, but so what? Greed is good, right?
Previous generations strove to bring the key economic levers under democratic control, to make business accountable. Today’s is rushing headlong in the opposite direction, making democracy more businesslike, not in the laudable sense of efficient operation but in the altogether more unpalatable sense of making it less democratic. If it starts with local government, it will not end there. Why have MPs if we can have an elected Prime Minister, beyond criticism’s reach for a fixed five-year term? (Mr Cameron referred this weekend to having to take “my Parliament with me” over Syria, as clear a case of lèse-majesté as can be imagined.) Why have 200 separate states when we can have a single world president applying a single corporately written law? Powerful institutions are what safeguard democracy, by being persistently awkward; powerful individuals are what undermine it, by attacking them as vested interests obstructing change.
The irony is that elected mayors, pushed again and again as an extension to and modernisation of our democratic traditions, are now being imposed on cities like Manchester that have already rejected them in referenda. Bristol, meanwhile, is the only city to have voted to have an elected mayor under new legislation that prevents it voting to change its mind in the future. The arguments for and against having elected mayors are essentially academic – and irrelevant – so long as the London regime is determined that we shall have them at all costs.