UK Politics

Doubts cast over rural England elected mayor plans

A ballot box at a local election Image copyright PA

Plans for new elected mayors announced in the Budget by the government should be abandoned, Conservatives have said.

Local councillors and some MPs say mayors for three rural parts of England will add an expensive and unwanted extra tier of government.

Councils could reject the idea and opt out of new authorities in Lincolnshire, the west of England and East Anglia, North Somerset MP Liam Fox said.

The government says it wants to help the local economy and devolve power.

Some Conservative councillors in the rural areas intend to try to block the policy, which will not be imposed on unwilling areas.

In his Budget in March, Chancellor George Osborne announced plans for elected mayors in the three areas.

Local authorities will vote on whether or not to accept detailed proposals by the end of June.

MPs dilemma

North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham, said people would feel no affinity to a new authority and elections for a new mayor would attract a "pathetic" turnout.

He told the Today programme on Radio 4: "Now I don't want a regional leader coming along and saying look 'Henry you've been a bad boy, I gather you don't want this incinerator, you don't want these houses, well actually the region do want it and I'd like you to have it'.

"That is going to put MPs in a very difficult position and change their constitutional position."

While he supported the idea of devolution, he said plans for a new mayor should be put on hold.

'Unstoppable momentum'

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said it was making "huge progress" in making local areas more powerful by devolving power from Whitehall.

A source close to the chancellor said: "The devolution revolution taking place across the country has unstoppable momentum behind it."

Six new authorities, which will have elected mayors, have been established in mainly urban areas, with another expected this summer.

Conservative sceptics argue the plans will not work in rural areas.

Passing extra powers to large authorities with accountable, high-profile mayors is one of the Mr Osborne's central aims.

'Bottom-up process'

Privately, some Conservatives have compared it to the government's attempt to turn all English schools into academies, accusing it of forcing the plan on reluctant councils.

One said councils had been "bribed and bullied" in a bid to make them accept the idea.

But a DCLG spokesman said: "The government is making huge progress towards rebalancing the economy and empowering local areas through the devolution of powers and resources away from Whitehall to local people.

"Ministers have been repeatedly clear that devolution is a genuinely bottom-up process - all proposals are agreed by local leaders, and the government will not impose an arrangement on any area."

Chris Skidmore, the Conservative MP for Kingswood near Bristol, said he supported the idea, and a new West of England mayor would create a "powerhouse in the south".

Directly-elected mayors would be put in place, he said, even if some authorities chose not to take part. He said: "If one council decides they don't want to do a deal, the other three will go ahead with the same pot of money given to those three councils."

Huge cost

Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson, who has secured a House of Commons debate on the topic, said politicians would not give the government a "blank cheque" to sign up for more local government with a weak mayor.

He said: "It's not something when you're talking of spending hundreds of millions of pounds over the next 30 years that any responsible elected politician accountable to their electorate can sign up to."

North East Somerset Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is also opposed.

The leader of the Conservative group on Norfolk County Council, Cliff Jordan said he thought the council would reject the policy.

The Labour leader of the Council George Nobbs supports the idea of devolution but also opposes the policy in its current form.

Cambridgeshire County Council, which has a Conservative leader, has already voted to oppose the plan as it stands.

The Local Government Association wants local areas to be able to accept new powers and extra funding offered by the Treasury without having elected mayors.

A spokesman said: "People should be free to choose the appropriate model of robust governance for their community."

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