Jonathan Werran: As recent local elections showed, the mayoral revolution has been a success

12 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

The injunction to “live local and prosper” is the order of the day in the aftermath of last week’s local and devolved regional elections. Good quality neighbourhoods, vibrant high streets, decent school provision and abundant high-skilled jobs from a prosperous local economy – everything that instils pride in place should be encouraged.

The Government can go so far in stimulating prosperous communities and productive places through all the funding and policy levers available to the central state. But the role of strong local leadership here cannot be underestimated in galvanizing place prosperity.

For evidence we don’t need to look beyond two of the three goals in the hat trick, starting with Tees Valley and Ben Houchen’s truly astonishing 73 per cent vote share to secure beyond all measure the mayoralty he had narrowly won in 2017. Friday’s success was followed up the next day by Andy Street, who nearly won the West Midlands Combined Authority mayoralty on first round preference alone.

On this basis, where you have mayoral figureheads who combine charisma with pragmatism, and with a sufficient war chest for investment, this is a model eminently capable of setting in motion a virtuous cycle of economic and political success. Seen in isolation, this outcome wholly vindicates George Osborne and Rupert Harrison’s coalition-era hatched devolution revolution plan.

As the former chancellor Tweeted leading up to Super Thursday, what is needed next is for more trust to be placed in metro mayors through further meaningful devolution from Whitehall. Ideally what is called for here are substantive powers over investment and fiscal leeway to inject fuel into to the tank of well-exercised convening powers.

In ConHome’s Saturday reaction, Paul Goodman noted how Houchen’s triumph and ability to deliver from Freeports to Whitehall relocation has unlocked four of Teesside’s six parliamentary constituencies. At local level, Street’s readeption of the West Midlands Mayoral Combined Authority was telegraphed by the gaining of Dudley Council, again pointing to the potency of the mayoral model, when well supported, in delivering political dividends.

However, these Conservative successes must be tempered by the twin failures to retain the combined authorities encompassing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England as well as the entrenched position of Labour’s metro mayors. Switching the voting method from supplementary vote to first past the post in future mayoral polls would have made the difference for James Palmer at least.

But any inquest must also consider the future and determine how what is working out so well as bold and pioneering in the West Midlands and North East might translate inside the deep blue wall – where the voting intentions of red urban islands such as Cambridge proved capable of commanding the rural blue seas.

Answers there may come, we hope, in the shape of the Levelling Up White Paper. If the expectation is that we revert to the vision Michael Gove offered up last July in his Ditchley Park lecture, this seemed to be pointing to one of central government rationally dealing with 50 principal players, as the US President does in relations with state governors in the federal system.

It’s very conceivable to see Conservative counties, even those shires which have been against the imposition of an urban mayoral governance model, lining up in principle with this out of party loyalty. Such a move would, by reducing the number of significant players to something manageable, align with Gordon Brown’s suggestion – one backed by Lord Hague – for saving the union by establishing some kind of “permanent forum between the regions and the nations, and the centre of government, which Boris Johnson should chair”.

But in what political economy would any new mayoralties emerge into? Going back to the first formal definition of “Levelling Up”, a term mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, we have: “Levelling up means creating new good jobs, boosting training and growing productivity in places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry – not through a one-size-fits-all approach, but nurturing different types of economic growth and building on the different strengths that different places have.”

Just over four years ago when a formal and interventionist industrial strategy, Localis published a report in which we made the distinction between the “stuck” and the “stifled”. The stuck referred to the places that are still dealing with the fallout of the industrial trauma of the 1980s and the stifled places that are growing quickly but whose growth is hemmed in by their boundaries. We recognised both typologies as of increasing political importance, but the Levelling Up road just taken seems firmly addressed to meeting the needs of the former – and for the latter may be seen as levelling down.

Unfair as it might be, the perception among local leaders in the South East might be that in exchange for financial and political capital being invested north of the Watford Gap, they will be lumbered with the hospital pass of meeting unpopular local housing targets. To obviate this issue, a more spatial strategy for housing might insulate from some of the uproar – but not all.

To what extent pain is inevitable and suffering optional will vary. But as a universal governance model, it’s more than likely that mayoralties would necessarily involve restructuring and reorganisation. Bearing in mind the tensions and rupture between the tiers of local government amid the pandemic response last year, then if the White Paper does come out for it, like Macbeth, ‘’If it were done when tis done, twere well it were done quickly”. If not, not at all.

The evidence shows that when resourced and supported, charistmatic and committed leaders of place like Houchen and Street can lead all before them. For the sake of our recovery, we could do with more of them.

The recent example of Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP, taking on the duty of leadership at Nottinghamshire County Council is an undeniably bold and imaginative coup which bodes well for the authority’s ability to cut through in talks Whitehall. To quote from the catchy campaign song of failed London Mayoral candidate Count Binface, it’s in such terms that you can see it being hip to be a mayor.

James Roberts: Woke ideology has brought with it an entire industry – and, even worse, it’s the taxpayer who’s funding it.

22 Sep

James Roberts is political director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance

With all the talk of post-Brexit state aid rules and subsidies for cutting-edge tech, other sectors propped up by the taxpayer are often overlooked. That includes our super-subsidised social justice sector.

The wave of woke has brought with it an entire industry. It has all the hallmarks of a successful sector: thousands of employees; quarterly results in the form of constant corporate releases on diversity; legions of lawyers; and incomprehensible industry jargon, repeated ad infinitum in its trade press, the BBC. It enjoys the backing of its own (captured) regulator, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and it parasitically preys on millions of pounds of public money.

You would have thought the social justice sector was big enough to look after itself. In 2003, an American professor noted that companies were spending an estimated $8 billion a year on diversity efforts. Today, business is booming. 

Diversity demagogues have successfully roped gullible civil servants into their agenda. Annual reports from every government body are filled with endless initiatives (the Civil Service Commission’s “diversity forum” and Network Rail’s “Race Matters” programme, to name but two).

In 2018, we estimated that the Equality Act alone (which spawned a great deal of this diversity doctrine) would cost the taxpayer £49 million annually by 2020. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are government jobs a plenty for these cultural commissars: everything from Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Specialists at UK Research and Innovation (£49,708pa) to Head of Inclusion at Surrey & Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust (£47,544 – £53,459pa).

Nowhere is this clearer than with the EHRC. The body once headed by Trevor Philips has become the engine for social activism.

It starts with subsidies. We identified £40 million of taxpayers’ money being given to a sample of organisations last year which campaign and lobby for political causes. EHRC was one of the main suppliers. Lucky recipients of EHRC grants included £10,169 for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, £18,000 handed to think tank Bright Blue for “event costs”, and £19,000 to Diverse Cymru, having been commissioned to create films highlighting refugees’ issues in Wales.

Even this year, with a global pandemic, the right-on racket continued. Self-proclaimed “specialist in Gender and LGBT Equality” Julie Scanlon received £8,305 in April from EHRC for “research”. Topics from her blog include “Has your organisation ever celebrated Lesbian Visibility Day” and (somewhat ironically for taxpayers) “Is your privilege losing you money?”.

Then we have TS4SE, a provider of “refugee and migrant awareness training”. The EHRC gave it a grant of £9,191. Justice Studio Ltd were paid a total of £65,560 between April 2019 and July 2020. Before the final payment had even been made, the founder and managing director felt it appropriate to condone the desecration of Winston Churchill’s statue, claiming he “had it coming”, as well as pronouncing extensively on the existence of white privilege.  

These campaigners, openly and aggressively pursuing a political agenda, should not be receiving taxpayers’ money. For the record, we pursue an agenda. So does Greenpeace. But neither of us takes a penny from the state.

With political activism in full swing, woke warriors have been looking for other ways to influence policy-making at the taxpayers’ expense. Once again, EHRC has obliged. The EHRC panel of counsel is a list of preferred providers of external legal services for the quango, including representation and advice. The panel is the linchpin of a network of activist lawyers, pursuing contentious political causes with no regard for the effective cross-subsidy coming their way from taxpayers, via the EHRC.

Unlike the attorney activism of the past, this doesn’t need a penny of legal aid money. EHRC panel lawyers are able to claim and continue campaigning as they please. Catherine Meredith, of Doughty Street Chambers, enjoyed payments totalling £3,264 in January and February of 2019, before claiming Britain requires “radical institutional and social change” following the death of George Floyd.

Lawyers from Matrix Chambers have received almost £600,000 since 2017. Yet one represented the organisation that blocked a recent Jamaica deportation flight. He got £86,900. Another, Emma Foubister, defended Extinction Rebellion activists after their eco-antics. Her EHRC bill came to £55,934. Helen Mountfield QC, who represented “The People’s Challenge” in the Gina Miller Brexit case, herself pocketed £190,688.

The persistent campaigning of the publicly-funded progressives has been a remarkable vehicle for influencing public policy. With a few notable (and noble) exceptions, like Ben Bradley and Neil O’Brien, now MPs themselves have been bounced into (taxpayer-funded) lectures on woke ideology via “unconscious bias” training.

For all the talk of fighting for the values of “forgotten man”, remarkably few figures in this “People’s Government” have joined the battle. Priti Patel put her head above the parapet in battle against activist lawyers, and became a hate figure in return. One Matrix lawyer publicly mocked Patel as “not smart” or “deliberately misleading”. Last year an organisation called Race on the Agenda happily took almost £20,000 from EHRC, but had no qualms about signing an open letter to the Home Secretary accusing her of a “regressive and counterproductive policing policy and cheap political point scoring”.

Ministers need to wake up. The social justice super-blob will never stop campaigning, attacking any government policy they can, driven on by professional zealotry and perks of public funding. Popular policies (from any party) will always be targets. For the activism industry, the world truly is black and white.   

So what can be done? First, defund the committed crusaders. Organisations that campaign and lobby for political objectives shouldn’t receive taxpayers’ money. The EHRC, which began recruiting a new chair and board members in June, should cut them off. The new leadership would do well to remember, as Trevor Philips himself has found out, that the activism industry inevitably turns on its own supporters. It’s better to starve the beast. Taxpayers should not be asked to subsidise this agenda any longer.