Mayors, Not Regions, Please

By Hames, Tim | New Statesman (1996), June 26, 1998 | Go to article overview

Mayors, Not Regions, Please


Hames, Tim, New Statesman (1996)


Tony Blair and John Prescott are on a collision course over their respective notions of how best to improve local governance. May Blair be the winner

That local government should be revitalised in some form is in little doubt, but the manner in which this can be achieved is a matter of serious dispute. The real argument, although it has yet to be specifically addressed, is between two competing formulas: regional arrangements or elected executive mayors. So far, in this as many other domains, the government has been able to have its cake and eat it. It will not be long before it becomes apparent that there is simply insufficient political authority available to sustain both of these models. The crunch, when it comes, will be particularly painful because it will inevitably pit Tony Blair against John Prescott.

It is pretty obvious that the Prime Minister has limited enthusiasm for regionalism. In his rather underestimated pamphlet for the IPPR published in February, Blair repeated, in even more expansive terms, his enthusiasm for the elected executive mayor as the means of achieving accountability and efficiency in local politics. For most of the past 20 years the Conservatives have effectively contended that these two objectives are incompatible. The Prime Minister has realised that a radically different type of local government can escape this conundrum. The reference to the virtues of regionalism in the same tome were notable only by their absence.

Blair's influence on these matters was made apparent in the political battle over the mayor of London. The government's green paper on the subject issued last summer was a fudge between the Prime Minister's preference for a dominant figure and the fears of the Labour Party. It proposed a mayor whose political power would be drastically constrained by a Greater London Assembly, rendering inappropriate any comparisons between the role of the mayors of London and New York. At the insistence of Downing Street, this draft was radically rewritten. The white paper published in March created a mayor whose political (if not financial) authority was at least as strong as that of any American incumbent. It was this version that was endorsed by Londoners in May.

Prescott, on the other hand, retains real enthusiasm for regional government and Regional Development Agencies. In part this reflects a deep personal commitment to decentralisation that has survived the lure of London office. It is also an attempt to find an offsetting response in England to the impact of devolution in Scotland and Wales. The first is an entirely appropriate and sincere motive; the second is doomed to failure. In London, a city as well as a region, there is little inherent tension between the ideas of an elected mayor and regional government. That will not be true in the rest of England. The government can either have significant elected mayors in Birmingham and Newcastle or meaningful regional assemblies in the West Midlands and the North-east. If it tries to have both it will either produce two sets of inconsequential actors or sow the seeds for endemic conflict between them. To govern is indeed to choose. …

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