For a government that says it is in favour of introducing elected mayors into our major cities, including Manchester, the Minister for local government and the cronies in his department appear to be hell bent on peeing off as many people in the North West as possible before putting the issue to a referendum next May.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles was forced this week, via the House of Lords, to drop the nonsensical notion that, where an existing leader in the 11 cities earmarked for elected mayors refused to take the role as a ‘shadow mayor’-a post to be created later this year ahead of the referendum- then an alternative person would be chosen at random by a Cabinet minister.
So in Manchester council leader Sir Richard Leese could be ousted from office by Pickles & co simply for refusing to take the meaningless ‘shadow mayor’ title. One Labour Lord compared the plan to Hitler’s ‘Anschluss’ saying “You invade Austria first and have a referendum afterwards.” A little OTT, but you get his point.
Advocates of elected mayors generally support the idea because it would add to the transparency and accountability of leadership in our cities. However, this type of stunt, and an instinctive distrust of Tory government policy in the area of local government in this part of the world anyway, makes the winning of a ballot on the issue in Manchester highly unlikely.
In Liverpool too, any idea wrapped up in blue paper is going to struggle to win support. So the chances are that what could have been an interesting addition to the local government landscape in the region will fall at the first hurdle. An arrogance and a lack of respect for democracy from Mr Pickles and his colleagues is, at least in part, to blame for that.
It’s a great shame, because a mature and open debate on the merits or otherwise of mayors is a necessary and long overdue conversation. Turnout in local government elections is declining, powers continue to be sucked from Town Halls to Westminster, and if you compare the influence and budget available to Boris Johnson in London to the Leader of Manchester, there is no comparison.
Manchester is fortunate to have a strong and capable leadership at present. But Sir Richard and Sir Howard Bernstein won’t be around forever. When they do eventually leave the stage, is the existing structure going to look as attractive as it does currently?