Elected Mayors outside city regions – Westminster Hall debate

Alison Thewliss: It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Dorries.

I thank all the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon—the contributions have been very thought-provoking—and I thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for securing this ​important debate. It is important that he said that mayoralty was not suitable for all areas. He gave the example of Cornwall, which is not being forced to have a mayor. The cities in Scotland that have been offered city deals, with funding contributions from the UK Government, have not been asked to have a mayor either. It is not within the civic tradition of Scotland to have a mayor. Quite often, we will have a civic head in a Lord Provost and a political head in the leader of the council, but we have not been asked at any point to have a mayor as part of this process.

A very interesting report was brought out just yesterday by the Scottish Cities Alliance, called “Empowering City Government”. It contains significant discussions about what more the seven cities in Scotland might get from the powers coming to the Scottish Government as part of the devolution process, and about what more they might ask for. Mayors are not one of the many asks in that report. So this issue is not only being discussed in England.

It was also very interesting that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to the Communities and Local Government Committee report and mentioned consultation, because when the Committee, of which I am a member, held a public session in Manchester about the city deal there, members of the public, trade union representatives and a range of interested people expressed a huge amount of concern especially about health devolution. The people there did not quite understand what was being offered to them, how it would benefit them or what the full implications might be. What exactly it will mean is still being teased out. I share the concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed about the lack of transparency about the process, what is being offered and where the public fit in the whole scheme of things.

It has been said that perhaps not everybody can name their council leader. I can assure the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) that the council leader in Glasgow, who is a Labour council leader, is well known. The janitors in the city are currently out on strike and they are wearing face masks with the council leader’s face on them, so he is well ken’d and well known, although that is not perhaps working out the best way for him.

The hon. Member mentioned how centralised the UK is, which is true—London is the great sucking machine that takes all the spending and all the jobs. It is very interesting that he made a comparison with Scotland, because we know anyway that we are subsidising London and have been for many years. The civil service is also in London—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that too—and the Government are intensifying the situation, with the HMRC closures, and other Departments locating back to London.

David Mowat: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Alison Thewliss: There is not a great deal of time, and I want to let other Members speak.

David Mowat: I thank the hon. Lady. For the avoidance of doubt, if my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) were in Scotland they would both receive massively more ​money per head than they do through the Barnett formula. The notion that Scotland subsidises London is bizarre.

Alison Thewliss: The hon. Gentleman might find it bizarre, but people in Scotland do not. The Aberdeen region city deal was £550 per head, whereas the figure for Manchester was £2,130 and for Bristol £1,207, so Scotland is losing out compared with city deals in the rest of the UK.

The point about democracy and the chaotic structures that are being created has been well made. The now many layers of local government in England increase the lack of democracy in many cases, and powers have been transferred away from and above local people and local government to a layer that is further away from them. I understand that the Public Accounts Committee has challenged the effectiveness of the devolution deals so far.

The hon. Member for Warrington North argued against the one-size-fits-all approach, and I absolutely concur with her. She mentioned the notion that power devolved is power retained, with local authorities perhaps not getting all the things they expected and hoped for, and that certainly seems to be the case with some of the deals—more things have been asked for than have been allowed. The question whether it will be a Labour or a Tory mayor is interesting to observe from my position, because when local government reform was taking place in Scotland in the late ’90s, there seemed to be a bit of a sense that some areas had been pockled in favour of Labour or Tory councils-to-be. There are still issues there, with Glasgow not doing as well as its wealthy neighbours and people from round about using the services there. There remain issues about who pays for the services.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) blamed many people for the loss of industries in his constituency, but he did not blame central Government, which I find curious. Responsibility is important; a mayor should have responsibility and accountability, but the buck must stop with central Government and the job policies that they create. They must ensure that the conditions are correct. In Scotland we have also seen the loss of heavy industries, but we are now in a position to make a bit of a difference. The shiny example is the saving of the Ferguson shipyard in Inverclyde, which had run down over many years. The Scottish Government put in investment and found a buyer, and the shipyard is now thriving and taking on apprentices.

Graham Evans: It is not a case of blaming people. We live in a global economy and a global world, and regions and areas must take that into account. The point I am making is that we know that in the next 10, 15, 20 or 30 years industries will see changes. They will be global changes, and the whole point of devolution is that it gives us the power to foresee such changes and make changes to our local economy, infrastructure, education and skills so that we are best placed to attract inward investment from across the world, or wherever.

Alison Thewliss: The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a global economy, but the powers that are being devolved to local authorities are not enough to do what he says. In the interesting report that I mentioned, the ​Scottish Cities Alliance calls for more powers for local authorities in Scotland over immigration policy because there are areas that are not thriving as well as they could be and not attracting the skills that they could. The limited devolution powers do not go far enough.

The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) made some interesting remarks, and I ask him to reflect on this quote from the Chancellor. He said:

“I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”

Those two statements together do not make sense. He either wants it or he does not.

Finally, I want to put it on the record that the Scottish National party supports attempts to bring about local democracy, but we do not think that this measure is the radical devolution that is required. We are concerned that changing the formation of existing powers could create a chaotic structure. More thought needs to be given to the proposals.