Osborne offers "serious devolution" for elected mayors

The Government would offer "serious devolution" of power and budgets to Northern cities that adopt elected mayors, George Osborne has said.

The Chancellor told an audience at Manchester's Museum of Science & Industry that mayors in cities such as Manchester and Leeds would have similar powers to London mayor Boris Johnson to help them drive economic growth as part of a wider "Northern powerhouse".

Osborne also backed proposals for a so-called HS3 - a new high-speed rail line running east-west from Manchester to Leeds - to improve connections and support growth.

"I want to start the conversation and put the offer on the table - serious devolution of powers and budgets for any city that wants to move to a new model of governance and have an elected mayor. A mayor for Manchester; a mayor for Leeds, with powers similar to the mayor of London," the Chancellor said.

"Let's bring our Northern cities together so they're bigger and better than anyone can be alone. It won't happen overnight; it's a long-term plan for a country serious about its long-term economic future. And I promise you this - I will work with anyone in any political party in any of these great cities to make this Northern powerhouse a reality. For this plan is bigger than any one of us - and it's worth it for us all."

English cities including Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham, Sheffield and Wakefield held referendums on adopting elected mayors in May 2012. Of 11 cities, nine rejected the move, with only Bristol adopting the system and Doncaster voting to retain its existing elected mayor. Liverpool introduced an elected mayor without a referendum.

Responding to Osborne's speech, Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese insisted the elected mayor model must not be imposed on cities.

"We believe that the existing governance arrangements for Greater Manchester, through the combined authority, work well but would welcome extra freedoms to shape the destiny of our own region and are always willing to engage in any conversation about how this can be achieved," he said.

"However, it should be for Greater Manchester to decide how it will be governed, not remote politicians or Whitehall."

Leeds City Council leader Keith Wakefield said the debate about mayors "risks being a distraction from the real challenges we face in the North".

"I believe it is up to local people to decide how they would prefer their city to be run. In 2012, Leeds was offered the opportunity to switch to an elected mayor as part of a Government referendum. People in this city delivered a resounding no vote, with almost two thirds voting in opposition," he added.

"We have a strong city-region, with clear accountability and governance arrangements, which is focussed on using the collective strengths of local authorities to benefit the communities we represent. Leeds also works closely with other Core Cities to promote economic growth, provide jobs and boost skills.

"From Yorkshire’s perspective, I want to see the Government focus less on imposing new, expensive systems of government on local people and more on giving those regions the power and resources to get on with providing the physical and economic infrastructure they need to thrive."

The renewed push for elected mayors also received a lukewarm response from Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council.

He told LGE: "The people of the North East voted against elected mayors in 2012, but that doesn't give Government the right to withhold power from cities that won't back elected mayors.

"This seems to me to be a smokescreen to prevent the devolution of powers from Whitehall that are needed if regional economies are to grow faster. It seems like an Alice in Wonderland way of going about politics, particularly when combined authorities have been set up for just this purpose.

"The Government is more obsessed with vanity projects like elected mayors than devolving powers to local communities."