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John Tomaney
As the guard changes in Westminster and a new government
seeks to differentiate itself from its predecessor, it is timely to review the
state of the devolution debate. The Cameron/Osborne approach to devolution had
a number of distinctive features. Chief among these was its fixation with the
directly elected metro-mayor as the answer to urban governance problem. In the
government’s diagnosis this model of governance addresses weaknesses in
fragmented systems, improves democratic accountability and brings city-regions
together round common economic development strategies. The government claimed,
The experience of London and
other major international cities suggests that a directly elected mayor can cut
through difficulties [of urban governance]. The government has therefore been
clear that devolution of significant powers will rest on cities agreeing to
rationalise governance and put in place a mayor to inspire confidence.[i]
John Tomaney
But there is limited evidence to support these claims about
the impact of directly elected mayors on local economic growth and the
improvement of local services. Many of the assertions made in the English
debate rest on more or less persuasive anecdotes drawn principally from the US
experience and the limited experience in London. Strong US mayors, with access
to locally tax raised taxes, are seen as leading the renaissance of US cities.[ii]
For instance, the economic resurgence of New York City is often attributed to
the pro-business policies of ‘strong mayors’ such as Michael Bloomberg. Rather
less attention, however, is devoted to counterfactuals. We might look at the
case of Detroit, where ‘strong mayors’ have presided over a vicious circle of
economic decline and municipal bankruptcy. A high degree of local self-finance,
far from ensuring resilience, was arguably a causal factor in the precipitous
decline of Detroit. The mayoral system is in crisis there.  In 2013, the sixty-fifth mayor of Detroit,
Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison after being
convicted of a variety of corruption charges. The city of Detroit filed for
bankruptcy in 2013 and the State of Michigan appointed an emergency manager to
assume control of the council. Strong mayors can lead to hubris and overreach
and be the antithesis of models of policy-making based on deliberation and
increased accountability and scrutiny. Mayors have managed both the rapid
recent growth of New York City and the catastrophic decline of Detroit.
Isolating the influence of mayors among the many other factors at work in these
cases is very difficult.
One thing that can be said with certainty is that the mayors
have not presided over an era of democratic renewal. On the contrary, the US
mayoral system has been associated with declining levels of electoral
participation in the big cities. At the time that Robert F Wagner Jnr was
elected as mayor of New York City in 1953, voter turnout was over 90 per cent.
By the time Bill de Blasio was elected 109th mayor in 2013, voter turnout was
less than 30 per cent. Similar rates of decline in voter turnout can be seen in
cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago.[iii]
These declines in voter turnouts have occurred, moreover, in
cities that are endowed with much more extensive local media than is the case
in northern English cities. A key feature of the US mayoral model concerns how
it facilitates close relationships between local political and business elites
in ways which typically lack transparency and scrutiny and which underpin
models of economic development that favour urban property interests. It is this
aspect of the US model that seems to have had a particular influence in UK
policy debates. For instance, at the 2015 Conservative party conference in
Manchester, George Osborne proposed that where elected mayors had been created,
they would have the power to add a (capped) infrastructure levy on business
rates. There is considerable uncertainty about how both the devolution of
business rates and the infrastructure levy would work in practice, but the
government is clear that a levy can only be raised if a majority of ‘business
members’ of the boards of Local Enterprise Partnerships agree. In effect,
resources will only be allowed to be spent on infrastructure projects that are
approved by a handful of ‘business leaders’. It might fairly be asked why the
interests of a small number of appointed businesspeople should trump the
mandate of an elected mayor. It might even be argued that this development
represents a partial return of the franchise property qualification which was
abolished by the Representation of the People Act in 1918.
The new devolution arrangements are not the product of wide
public debate in the areas to be affected by them, but instead are the outcomes
of ‘secret deals’ (‘City Deals’, ‘Devolution Deals’, etc.) between political
and business elites at the national and local levels, exemplified in the case
of Manchester.[iv]
In essence, these deals are assembled locally from a menu of policies approved
by HM Treasury. It stretches the imagination to see this approach as leading to
meaningful democratic renewal. On the contrary, the model of devolution
currently on offer is one designed to advance a narrowly defined set of
business interests with very little democratic scrutiny. Arguably, it is this
approach to politics that was rejected in the Brexit referendum.
Underpinning the new policy is a theory of economic
development that fosters interurban competition and economic concentration,
tolerates and indeed even celebrates high levels of socio-economic inequality,
is comfortable with some groups and places being losers, and locks in enduring
austerity, most especially in the places that have borne the brunt of public
expenditure cuts to date. Innovation and entrepreneurialism in economic
development is tolerated only within a highly restricted range of parameters.
It is a form of devolution in which ‘business’ exercises a direct and indirect
veto over the preferences of citizens. The emerging settlement is akin to the
model of ‘post-democracy’, as elaborated by Colin Crouch, whereby formal
mechanisms of accountability exist, but their practical role is increasingly
limited and embodies the interest of a small elite.[v]
In a country as centralised as the UK, the case for
devolution is strong in principle. But as the Cameron/Osborne era is put to
rest, this might be an appropriate moment to the reconsider the narrow model
that has been on offer to date.
You can read the full article here
John Tomaney is Professor of
Urban and Regional Planning at UCL. A longer version of this article is
published by Political Quarterly. It is based on work supported by the award of
the Sir Ernest Simon Visiting Professorship at Manchester Business School for

[i]               HM Treasury (2015) Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous
. Cm 9098. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/443898/Productivity_Plan_web.pdf
(Accessed June 30 2015).
[ii]               B. Barber (2013) If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional
Nations, Rising Cities
. New Haven: Yale University Press.
[iii]              M. Maciag, ‘Voter turnout
plummeting in local elections’, Governing,
October 2014, http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-voter-turnout-municipal-elections.html
(accessed June 30
[iv]              S. Jenkins, ‘The secret
negotiations to restore Manchester to greatness’, The Guardian, 12 February 2015,
(accessed 30 June2016); see also J. Tomaney and A. McCarthy, ‘The Manchester
model’, Town and Country Planning,
vol. 84, no. 5, 2015, pp. 233–6.
[v]              C. Crouch (2004) Post-democracy.
Cambridge: Policy Press.
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