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Exclusive: National framework for devolution needed, says McMahon

A national framework for English devolution should be drawn up, but decisions over the requirement for a mayor should be made locally and not demanded by central government, Labour’s shadow minister for local government and devolution has told PSE.

In an exclusive interview, Jim McMahon said that the government should not demand more of local areas than it demands of itself.

“We don’t have a directly-elected prime minister or chancellor, but for a fraction of their power we are demanding that local areas have to go to the ballot box,” he explained.

“There is a real danger in 2017, as it is going to be fallow year in many places, that turnout could be low. That then questions the legitimacy of the mayors that have just been elected.”

When Theresa May took office as PM, there was speculation that the need for elected mayors could be dropped as part of the devolution agenda, but recently the Northern Powerhouse minister, Andrew Percy, revealed that English regions will need elected mayors in order to be prioritised for local government funding.

McMahon argued that the patchwork nature of devolution deals that have been agreed so far have meant that large swathes of the country have not been part of the debate – “worse still, there are people in the devolution areas that still haven’t been part of the conversation”.

“What I worry about is that the public are not part of the conversation,” he said, adding that the closed door nature of the deals has put councils in a tough negotiating position.

Some areas with mayors have already been rewarded by government, benefitting from up to £30m a year in extra funding and some input over Whitehall spending. Greater Manchesterthe West Midlands, Liverpool and the Tees Valley are now set to hold elections next May, with the West of England soon to follow.

Other regions have signed mayoral deals but not yet ratified them, such as Sheffield, whose deal, which includes Chesterfield, is being legally challenged by Derbyshire County Council.

In last week’s Autumn Statement, Philip Hammond also announced that Greater London is set to receive new powers under devolution, including responsibility for the Work and Health programme and its adult education budget. 

It was also revealed that Cambridge and Peterborough will be the latest region to elect a new mayor after seven local councils agreed a £800m devolution deal which will make it the first non-metropolitan devolved area in England.

The former leader of Oldham Council told PSE he supported the government’s approach to providing localities with incremental gains, because “small progress today, rather than waiting 10-20 years for the big bang devolution that may never come” is better than nothing.

“But for English local authorities, we should be demanding that we are equal partners in the conversation and are not an afterthought,” McMahon said. “As far as I can see, there is an emerging framework that has been developed. Not because government has presented it, but because it has been complied together through the different devolution deals that have been agreed so far.

“What I would like to see is a new settlement for English local authorities and communities, where, much in the way we have genuinely devolved some powers to Scotland and Wales, we look at a new settlement for England.”

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