Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Should Scotland consider metro mayors? – Adam Lang

Following last week’s UK Labour party conference in Liverpool, the topic of further devolution within Scotland has gained some political interest and media attention, specifically the idea mooted by Anas Sarwar MSP of establishing metro mayors in Scotland.

The leader of the Scottish Labour party suggested that a new UK Labour government could move to allow for a similar local devolved set up in Scotland to that in Greater Manchester. In this combined authority area Metro Mayor, Andy Burnham, has significant devolved policy and spending powers over important regional issues such as transport, housing, skills, and health, in addition to more traditional local authority powers in areas such as strategic planning and waste management.

Local mayors with meaningful devolved powers are a relatively new initiative in the UK, but they are much more common and have been around much longer in mainland Europe, where there is often a proportionally far greater number of local authorities within countries than exist within the nations of the UK today. Similarly, the issue of further regional devolution within Scotland is not a new proposal or policy debate, but it is one that has seen little new political interest or meaningful momentum in recent years. At least until last week.

At Carnegie UK we believe in giving people voice and choice over the decisions that affect them. We support and promote subsidiarity – the idea that wherever practical, decisions should be taken at the most local level possible – as a route to improving our collective wellbeing. As such, it is welcome that this intervention from a senior political figure might reinvigorate discussion and engagement on these issues.

It is objectively true that Scotland today is a very centralised nation, both politically and institutionally, and this impacts on our approach to policy making and service delivery. It is also true that our local government still operates on a pre-devolution structure and has not been meaningfully reviewed or renewed since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, despite significant further devolution to Holyrood since then.

This begs the reasonable question: do we have the right state structure in Scotland to enable us to better meet the needs of citizens today and rise to the challenges we will face in the future? It is this level of first principle challenge that should be the starting point for any policy debate on proposals for further devolution or new institution building.

This is not a question to which there is currently a clear or single answer and there is much that would need to be proposed, scrutinised and analysed to better understand if devolved elected mayors would be the right way forward in Scotland in order to better meet the needs of people and communities. But it absolutely is an issue worth engaging with.

Scotland today faces the competing challenge of being both highly centralised in terms of policy development, decision making and funding as well as being increasingly cluttered and incoherent in our operating environment for service delivery. We currently have more than 130 public bodies in Scotland, including 32 local authorities, 30 Integrated Joint Boards (IJBs) for Health and Social Care, 14 Regional NHS Boards, 8 Special Health Boards, 7 Regional Transport Partnerships (RTPs) 6 Sheriffdoms for managing our Court system, 3 enterprise areas and single national agencies for both our Police and Fire services. All of these represent different lines on a map for resourcing, accountability and decision making. The combination of this centralisation of power and cluttered landscape of delivery is a significant contributing factor to the well documented implementation gap that exists between the aims of our policy making on paper and the reality of delivery on the ground.

One additional area that is interesting to consider as a possible way through this incoherence, relates to the recent rise of Growth Deal investment areas. There are currently six City Growth Deals and six Regional Growth Deals in place in Scotland. These bring together a number of local authorities, institutions and interested parties in a geography to drive and direct investment and activity in support of specific economic aims. Those public bodies and organisations that make up the new “map” of Growth Deal areas oversee and direct significant combined sums of money from both the UK and Scottish Governments, but with limited direct requirements for public engagement or accountability.

An interesting experiment to consider in relation to any proposals on devolved mayoralities in Scotland would be to look at how the established Growth Deal areas, where local authorities and other partners are already working together, could potentially benefit from greater alignment and accountability with more local powers around things like transport and skills. That is not to say that there is a case for immediately moving to 12 elected mayors in Scotland, far from it. There are serious things to grapple with in terms of diminishing returns of certain devolved functions and the need for efficiencies and combined working. But it could provide an interesting starting point for assessing where might be viable for further devolution, or not, and of what specific functions.

At Carnegie UK, we know from our recent work with the North of Tyne Combined Authority that when there is an institutional remit for local areas to work together to better meet the needs of their people, real appetite for adopting a wellbeing approach to decision making within those new institutions can emerge. This work led to our recently published guide designed to help governments and local authorities deliver on local priorities.

As a final thought on this, it is now well established that engagement and trust in our democratic institutions in Scotland and across the UK is in serious decline. There is a deeply concerning picture emerging around our democratic wellbeing as a society (with some landmark research on this to come from Carnegie UK in the weeks ahead). This alone should be a significant cause for concern and driver of action for those we elect to lead our governments both local and national.

More devolution just for the sake of devolution or political positioning is not the right starting point for this kind of complex and nuanced debate. But if the starting challenge is how to align where powers sit with ensuring that people have what they need to live well now and into the future, then a debate on the viability of devolved mayors in Scotland becomes much more meaningful. If it can also lead to a serious kicking of the tyres on the structure, role and resources of our modern state, and consideration of how our democratic institutions can re-engage and rebuild trust with the public, then that should make this a proposal worthy of serious engagement and consideration from all sides.

 Adam Lang is Director of Change and Collaboration at Carnegie UK Trust

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