Will Tanner: Devolution. Conservatives should embrace England’s mayoral moment.

24 Jun

Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.

Conservatives have always had an uneasy relationship with devolution. Philosophically, decentralisation sits well within the conservative tradition of empowering people and places to make their own decisions, and restricting the centralising tendencies of the state.

We might naturally think of Burke’s little platoons, de Tocqueville’s foundations of American democracy, or Disraeli’s social reforms.

But at the sharp end of politics it is Conservatives that had to confront some of the worst abuses of decentralised control in the past, from Militant’s municipal control of Liverpool in the 1970s to Scottish separatism today.

And it is Conservative councils, particularly in the party’s rural heartlands, that have been most resistant to the imposition of powerful new mayors with a direct mandate to replace existing county and district councils.

It is tempting, on the basis of this recent history, to see the worst in plans to devolve power and control to a new cadre of city and county mayors.

Some fear the creation of more Sadiq Khans: figures who at times use their positions more as a rabble-rousing soap box than a mandate for delivery. Others ask why a Conservative Government would deliberately cede control of Britain’s biggest cities to local electorates that increasingly vote Labour.

And even those more supportive of decentralisation urge caution on grounds that England’s mayors are still relatively new and untested.

These objections are understandable, but they are not particularly convincing. The truth is that devolving power to more and stronger mayors is not just philosophically within the conservative tradition, but also economically and politically sensible for the Conservatives to pursue.

It offers an opportunity for a Government beset by challenges on other fronts to “give back control” to the places that most need levelling up, address the UK’s great economic weakness – poor regional governance – and should boost the Conservative vote too.

There are three reasons why conservatives should embrace a new mayoral moment. The first is the overbearing power of Whitehall in British politics. Conservatives rail against the ratio of tax to GDP but just as pernicious is the share of tax raised and spent centrally versus locally.

Just five per cent of tax revenue is raised locally in the UK, a third of the level in France and a sixth of that in Germany. Of that revenue, only a quarter is spent locally, compared to half in the US and three quarters in Canada.

And it’s getting worse: between 1995 and 2017, the share of public spending controlled below central government fell, from 26 per cent to 23 per cent, despite rising almost everywhere else in the OECD.

Even in London, which has enjoyed increasing levels of autonomy since the mayoralty was established in 2000, only eight per cent of revenue spending is currently controlled by the mayor. In other areas, this is far lower: in the West Midlands, just 0.4 per cent of the revenue budget is controlled by Andy Street; 84 per cent is controlled by national government.

And while Sadiq Khan’s control of Transport for London and affordable housing funding means that 43 per ccent of capital spending in London is controlled locally, in other regions this is far lower: just 26 per cent in the North West and 28 per cent in the West Midlands.

This centralisation is not just a block on local democracy – depriving local places of self-determination and control – it is a block on overall growth, too. Painstaking evidence collated by academics like Professor Philip McCann shows that countries with a layer of regional or “meso” government tend to grow both faster and more equally.

This is because local areas act as both local laboratories – trialling new policies to attract investment, support jobs and upskill workers – and competitors – forcing local leaders to be more ambitious and learn from what works.

The second reason is that, despite being new, mayors are not untested. In fact, in the short time they have been in place in England many have demonstrated the virtues of the mayoral model.

In the last few years, dilapidated regional bus, tram and train systems have started to be reinvigorated. In the West Midlands, Andy Street has streamlined the skill system to drive up apprenticeship numbers and quality. While Ben Houchen has overseen the doubling of Foreign Direct Investment into Tees Valley from almost £5 billion to almost £10 billion between 2016-19.

Conservatives can rail against the fact that some of these schemes were delivered by Labour mayors. But the reality is many of these services were neglected by national administrations of different colours over the last few decades.

And at a moment when central government is being pulled in multiple directions, from Ukraine to the cost of living and inflation, mayors offer a vehicle for getting things done. If devolution is the price of delivery, then so be it.

Third, mayors offer a route for the Conservatives to win. In every area outside London, mayoral turnout has risen steadily over time and name recognition is high. Six in ten Mancunians can correctly name Andy Burnham and four in ten Teessiders can name Ben Houchen as their respective mayors, compared to the one in ten voters who can name their council leader.

And, because people know their mayors, when they do good things voters are more likely to vote for their party.

Take the Red Wall seat of Hartlepool. Between 2012 and 2018, Conservative performance in Hartlepool almost exactly tracked nearby South Tyneside. But after Ben Houchen’s election in 2017, the Tory vote share in Hartlepool has started to tick up. In 2021, it was four points higher than South Tyneside, and by 2022 it was a massive 18 points higher.

This is not simply because the Hartlepool electorate contains more latent conservatism than nearby areas: Hartlepool is demographically similar to Sunderland, South Tyneside and Gateshead, so the Red Wall realignment should have played out evenly in all of them.

This suggests a “Houchen effect” that has boosted the reputation of the party in the area – and points to the possibility of Conservatives using mayoral delivery to increase their political popularity across the Red Wall.

In future, the Conservative beachhead established at the last election may well be built upon by Mayors in North Yorkshire, Hull and East Riding, Cumbria, and the East Midlands. And in the event of a future Labour government, these may be the Conservative outriders that give people confidence to vote Tory again.

So mayors have demonstrated their potential. But they have done it with one hand tied behind their backs.

Whitehall’s funding streams are so complex, and so tightly held, that the Levelling Up Department alone has 16 distinct funding pots that local areas can bid into, including one to fund public toilets. Mayors have very limited ability to raise local revenue for local priorities, and few direct incentives to grow the local economy to support local investment and infrastructure.

In the Levelling Up White Paper, Michael Gove rightly set out ambitious plans to expand the mayoral devolution model to every area of England that wants it – and many counties and city regions are currently negotiating deals. This is a good start.

But we should go further – by giving mayors a single funding settlement similar to those negotiated with Whitehall departments and devolving 1p in every £1 of local income tax revenue – equivalent to £6 billion a year – to fund new responsibilities over local trains, skills and energy systems.

In return for more power, mayors should submit to additional accountability, from strengthened mayoral scrutiny panels, select committee questioning and greater local tax raising. This would strengthen local democracy, while also extending its reach.

In the last five years, Whitehall has taken back control of power and money from Brussels. It is time to give back control to Britain’s historic cities and counties.

The post Will Tanner: Devolution. Conservatives should embrace England’s mayoral moment. first appeared on Conservative Home.

Andy Street: The Commonwealth Games will leave a Levelling Up legacy for the West Midlands

22 Mar

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

The countdown is almost over. Just 129 days remain until the Commonwealth Games begin in Birmingham. Across the globe, 72 nations will send teams to compete in the UK’s second biggest ever sporting event. More than 5000 athletes are taking part in 283 events across 20 sports. Those talented individuals are finishing their personal preparations, with their sights set on gold.

As the final touches are applied to the venues, with excitement building for the Queen’s Baton Relay’s arrival, we in the West Midlands are working hard to ensure that the region’s businesses are also match fit. We want to take full advantage of the huge opportunities the Games are bringing.

I’m proud to have played my part in securing the Games early in my Mayoralty. The people of the West Midlands are embracing the opportunity of hosting such a massive event. I’m proud that successive Conservative Governments – first with Theresa May and Philip Hammond’s support and now with the Boris Johnson’s – has made it happen.

Our Government-backed strategic approach has been preparing the ground to ensure that, alongside a wonderful sporting spectacle, the Games also delivers an economic legacy that benefits local people in future decades.

Central to this is a £24million Business and Tourism Programme, built around four key objectives – creating a resilient and diverse economy, shaping the region’s reputation and profile , generating jobs, and positioning the West Midlands as an epicentre for Net Zero ambitions. Crucially, built into this strategy are ways to evaluate its progress, from the immediate benefits of engagement with investors to medium-term goals to shift international perceptions of our region.

Ultimately, we want to see not only investment and tourism that drives jobs and growth, but also export opportunities for local businesses, and to attract further major events. While it is early days – the Programme runs until 2023 – there are already encouraging indicators that it is delivering against the targets we set.

We have landed two more major events. During the Games, the first ever Commonwealth eSports Championships will be held at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre, giving out medals to the best in virtual sport. Then, in 2026, our region will host a world conference on Women in Sport. This is apt: the upcoming Games will be the first to offer more medal-winning opportunities for women than men.

Early signs also show that hard work to bring inward investment on the back of the Games is bearing fruit, with the strategy targeting markets in places like Australia, India, Malaysia and Singapore. This goes hand-in-hand with our push to shift perceptions of the West Midlands.

The West Midlands Growth Company, which, along with the Department of International Trade and VisitEngland, has reported an 817% increase in traffic to its inward investment website from India in the last six months. More than 640 media hits have been secured in primary markets of India, Australia, Canada, Malaysia and Singapore, spreading the word about our ambitions.

Regarding trade, DIT figures show 293 unique businesses have been engaged so far. Central to this has been a clever link-up with the Queen’s Baton Relay. As the Baton has journeyed across the Commonwealth towards England, we have delivered a targeted sales mission for each milestone, including one-to-one investor meetings and seminars

There are also the economic benefits that the Games’ exposure brings us, alongside the visitors. Birmingham is truly a global city, with people from over 180 countries. We have tried to shape this summer’s event as the ‘Games for Everyone’. The world is coming to us, with 1.5 billion people estimated to tune in globally, and huge numbers of visitors expected. So, the programme helps our businesses prepare to exploit this spotlight.  Our Getting Ready for the Games scheme supplies an e-Learning course to 7,000 businesses, providing insight and information to ensure the region delivers an outstanding visitor experience and showcases the West Midlands’ best.

Finally, the Global Growth Programme provides free support for companies wishing to enter UK markets via the West Midlands, while selecting 25 local businesses for targeted help in boosting exports. The exposure provided by the Games is proving to be a powerful conduit for trade. All of these economic benefits come in addition to more than a billion pounds of inward investment in preparing for the Games. Procurement has ensured that 70% of contracts have gone to businesses with West Midlands bases.

Training has also been boosted during preparations. For example, bootcamps organised though our Skills Academy to train people in broadcasting for the Games has given them skills for life. It’s my hope that many will look back and say that the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham provided them with a life-changing opportunity. All of this should translate into jobs, starting with 35,000 projected across the city this summer.

Along with the investment we have seen in our transport system, housing, skills and town centres, the Commonwealth Games has provided another powerful tool in ‘levelling up’ the West Midlands, backed by successive Conservative Prime Ministers.

We have anticipated this summer for a very long time, and we are ready for the world’s eyes to fall on us. The indications are that the Games will still be benefitting the people of the West Midlands economically long after the medals have been handed out.