In the run up to Christmas many businesses are thinking about how they’ll celebrate a good year. Fewer, but still many are also thinking about the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. In particular cities are following Manchester and Sheffield and looking to negotiate enhanced resources and groups of authorities are looking to negotiate deals like the Tees Valley and the North East deal. The big question is not about how much money is involved (the sums are significant) but who will deal with that money and how? That is, what will the governance look like and how accountable will it be?
Proponents of localism have always faced this problem. Most people agree that men in suits in Whitehall don’t know best, but they also agree that men in suits in town halls don’t know best either. Turn out in local elections is pitifully low too so Councils struggle to claim a strong mandate. This is a significant problem. Councils in times of austerity have increasingly been stripped of the grand civic traditions displayed in the grandeur of the town halls of the great northern cities. Rather than centres of civic power they’ve become delivery arms of major services like education and social services. With the cuts biting ever deeper they are struggling to provide even the services which they have to by law.
In response to this dilemma the Chancellor of the Exchequer has insisted that areas looking to propose a deal elect a mayor. The vision being that it will increase democratic accountability and serve as a focal point for an area, in turn putting it on the map. George Ferguson and Boris Johnson provide ready examples. Yet, Ferguson was elected with a turnout of less than a third of registered voters – barely higher than local elections. In London the turnout was 35.1% falling from over 50% in the first elections in London.
Even those problems were insignificant compared to areas where there are multiple local authorities and particularly where those authorities are at different levels.
As Cornwall County Council put it in its plan, ‘the Case for Cornwall’, ‘There are over 210 parishes in Cornwall and the Mayoral model covering the whole of Cornwall would not be a comfortable fit with the geographical spread and the diversity and individuality of the many communities we serve. There are mayors at a local level in some local councils but that is a very different proposition. The community bond that is created by the everyday work that is undertaken by the Council’s Members would risk being diluted by a shift of power to an elected Mayor.’
Furthermore, what about areas which have less of an obvious identity than say Cornwall? As the great political thinker David Marquand says how can you have a democracy without a demos?
This also matters when you think about what the role of politics is and the roots of our system of democracy. A mayor will likely run a place in accordance with the wishes of the majority because those groups helped him win. This sounds fair until you realise that you are in a minority on most issues. Your needs may often not be exactly aligned with the mainstream. Some people are routinely in a minority and become marginalised.
In the 1680s this was a pressing issue. The British Civil War had seen Parliament exercise its power against the King and in turn been ousted after it over exercised its power. So John Locke invented the concept of a representative democracy. This was not just about accountability to the majority but representation of minorities too.
This matters at a local level and with the rise of the Northern Powerhouse expect to see a great deal of focus on these issues. It is time to explore how democracy at a local level can be adapted from the 1680s to work to protect everybody, creating places which can allow all to flourish.
At the moment a host of people are questioning whether these deals really represent localism – without a serious debate over democratic legitimacy there won’t be a powerhouse.
During his career, Simon has advised numerous blue chip clients and has worked on a number of large scale communications programmes. Simon has extensive international experience and was a previous Secretary General of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO), a trade association representing over 1,000 PR agencies in 28 countries.
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