The first-time visitor to Manchester cannot fail to be struck by the grandeur of its Victorian civic buildings. The Town Hall, pictured above, is a mighty declaration of municipal pride and confidence. It is proudly provincial but there is nothing pejoratively provincial about it. Nor is Manchester alone: Newcastle and Leeds and the other great English cities built their own sandstone monuments to themselves. Hold up your heads, citizens, you come from nothing small.
Never mind the wins and losses in yesterday’s council elections. These are no more than the usual spins on the political merrygoround. Much more significant and much more depressing is the apparent rejection of locally-elected mayors in cities such as Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Coventry and Bradford.
Watching the BBC’s coverage of the local elections last night I was struck by how this was one of the few occasions the words "Manchester" or "Birmingham" ever appeared on nationally-televised political programming. Scotland and Wales are foreign places as far as David Dimbleby appears to be concerned but so it seems, more grievously, is the north of England. (to take one example: Question Time brings Westminster to the provinces; how often does the head of, say, Newcastle City Council or his or her equivalent ever appear?)
Be not mistaken, the rejection of directly-elected mayors is a mighty blow to David Cameron’s much-trumpeted "localism" agenda. This, you may struggle to remember, was supposed to be the government’s "Big Idea". And yet, as Daniel Knowles points out, the Prime Minister scarcely bothered to campaign for it at all. Contrast the energy the Conservatives devoted to thwarting efforts to change the voting system with the lackadaisical approach to reforming municiple government. It may not be a trendy or sexy subject but it’s an important one.
Yet, in a sense, one can forgive voters their lack of enthusiasm for directly-elected mayors. After all, the government did not propose handing them more powers than those presently enjoyed by local councils. What, then, would these mayors actually be able to do? Certainly, there is value in having a figurehead who is more obviously accountable than faceless councillors but imagine how much more better it would be if mayors held real power?
That would demand real devolution, however, and Whitehall shows few signs of being prepared to countenance that. The arguments for greater fiscal autonomy in Scotland are well-rehearsed by now but they apply to the great English provincial cities too. Local administrations with the power to tax as well as spend might not always govern wisely but they would at least allow for a greater dollop of local civic engagement, transparency, responsibility and, yes, perhaps even improvement too.
The government’s proposals were worth a cheer or two but they were not as worthy as they could or should have been. and since senior government ministers appeared disinclined to make the case for their own proposals one can understand why voters were disinclined to support an argument made so feebly. (It is no surprise, of course, that established local interests were hostile to reforms that would have threatened their comfy supremacy. All the more reason for the government to make its case forcefully.)
As Mr Knowles points out and as I have observed before this leaves us to grapple with the ridiculous, even grotesque, reality of poor England being a place where central government has a "policy" on local rubbish collection. Elected mayors might not have been enough, on their own, to put an end to such nonsense but they would have been a decent and necessary start. Indeed, the existence of such edicts from Whitehall is enough to support the view that the government’s supposed attitude to local politics is, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle.
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