As the guard changes in Westminster and new government seeks to differentiate itself from its predecessor, it is timely to review the state of the devolution debate, argues John Tomaney. Policymakers need to learn from the US experience and reconsider the fixation on mayors. Just as importantly, the problem with ‘secret deals’ must be addressed if devolution is going to have any real democratic credentials.
The Cameron/Osborne approach to devolution had a number of distinctive features. Chief among these was its fixation with the directly elected metro-mayor as the answer to urban governance problem. In the government’s diagnosis this model of governance addresses weaknesses in fragmented systems, improves democratic accountability and bring city- regions together round common economic development strategies. The government claimed:
The experience of London and other major international cities suggests that a directly elected mayor can cut through difficulties [of urban governance]. The government has therefore been clear that devolution of significant powers will rest on cities agreeing to rationalise governance and put in place a mayor to inspire confidence.
But there is limited evidence to support these claims about the impact of directly elected mayors on local economic growth and the improvement of local services. Many of the assertions made in the English debate rest on more or less persuasive anecdotes drawn principally from the US experience and the limited experience in London.