Democracy, Diversity and English Devolution

19 Apr 2017

The excitement of the general election aside, it’s important to remember that there are other important elections coming up – ones that have gone largely under the national radar.

As well as important local elections in Scotland, Wales and much of England, the first ‘metro-mayors’ will be elected. Six new city-region mayors will be elected with wide-ranging powers over the local economy, transport – and in Greater Manchester even some parts of the NHS and welfare.

These new institutions represent the greatest change to the governance of England in decades. It is vitally important then, to think about how they will work as democratic institutions. The Electoral Reform Society has hence produced a new report, From City Hall to Citizens' Hall: Democracy, Diversity and English Devolution.

Many of these new combined authorities are in areas made up of local ‘one party states’, where a single party dominates the council far out of proportion to their local popularity. There’s a big worry this will have negative repercussions for scrutiny of these new mayors.

One party domination has a huge impact on the composition of the combined authorities – but more worryingly, the scrutiny committees, given that these will be drawn from the highly disproportionate (and one-party dominated) seat make-up of the councils.

The Cost of One Party Councils report commissioned by the ERS has shown the costs imposed by poor scrutiny in one party councils. It founds that public procurement budgets in councils overwhelmingly dominated by a single party spend are more prone to waste – estimated to cost £2.6 billion per year. If the scrutineers are mostly from the governing party, it’s no surprise that they are less effective at holding their own party to account.

But we’re also raising the alarm about potential issues of diversity in the new combined authorities.

The ERS predicts that just one female Mayoral candidate will win next month (most likely in Tees Valley), with only seven female candidates out of 39 in the six races.

In the most gender-diverse cabinet of the Combined Authorities, only one of five leaders is a woman, while in four there are no women at all. 93% of the top jobs in the new CAs are likely to go to white men. It bodes badly for public faith in these institutions, and therefore their sustainability.

The ERS is calling for candidates and the new Mayors to back reforms to open up the Combined Authorities, including: basing scrutiny committees on vote share rather than seat share, prioritising gender balance in upcoming local elections, adopting proportional representation via the Single Transferable Vote for local elections, implementing a ‘Transparency Charter’, and experimenting with new forms of democracy such as citizens’ assemblies.

The new mayoralties are an opportunity to do politics differently: an opportunity that should not be missed.

Read our new report, 'From City Hall to Citizens' Hall: Democracy, Diversity and English Devolution' here

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