a. City Mayors
As part of the Localism Bill, which the Coalition intends to pass by November 2011, the Coalition has proposed that the largest 12 cities in England be given elected Mayors. At the present time this would affect the structure of local government in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield. The proposals would be subject to 'confirmatory referenda'. The Coalition aims that each Mayor would be elected by May 2012.
Our first edition of Coalition Watch reported the demise of the Audit Commission. Nonetheless, for the time being it is business as usual and to inform Lord Hutton's inquiry into public sector pensions, the Commission has published an information paper which aims to inform the debate about the long- term health of the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) in England by examining the technical issues about LGPS and summarising the main choices for policymakers and employers.
The proposal for directly elected city Mayors - a Boris Johnson for each of the 12 largest cities in England - is a potentially important element of the Coalition's aim to revitalise public engagement with local government, and a counterbalance to its effective abolition of the regional tier of government. However, the choice of the words 'confirmatory referenda' is an interesting one, and the Coalition has so far declined journalists' requests to clarify its meaning.
'Confirmatory' suggests that the referendum will take place after the event - otherwise, why use it at all, since a referendum before the event is surely just a referendum? Perhaps the proposed approach is similar to that of the Referendum on UK membership of the EEC in 1975, three years after Parliament had voted for membership and more than two years after it had taken effect. This may be the Coalition's strategy; it is less likely that the electorate will vote to remove a system which has already been put in place than that they will positively vote for change in advance.
If this is the strategy, it may be influenced by the failure of the previous government's referendum on the creation of a regional assembly for the North East of England in 2004 - a failure that fatally wounded that administration's regional government agenda. Perhaps the Coalition is determined that the same thing should not happen to it. In any event, perhaps the whole issue is a paradox. Whatever one may think about directly elected Mayors, it can hardly be said to be an anti-democratic policy. Is it necessary to ask the electorate, in a democratic referendum, whether it wants greater democracy?
The public sector pensions debate, meanwhile, highlights the need for a careful balancing exercise. The 2010 Spending Review will consider the long-term affordability of public sector pensions. But cutbacks on eligibility or thresholds for public sector pensions may not necessarily result in savings to the taxpayer in the long-term as it could result in increased public expenditure on means-tested benefits at a later stage.