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House of Lords amends devolution bill to remove requirement for elected mayors

The House of Lords has voted to amend draft legislation for the devolution of powers to local combined authorities, to remove the requirement for a combined authority to agree to have an elected mayor in order to receive devolved powers.21 Jul 2015

The amendment was among a number of changes made to the provisions of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill after two debates in the House of Lords last week.

The Bill, as initially introduced, allowed the communities secretary to make an order providing for there to be a mayor for the area of a combined authority in England or Wales. The Lords agreed to insert a sub-clause into the Bill, preventing the communities secretary from using such an order "as a condition for agreeing to the transfer of local authority or public authority functions". The amendment runs counter to a statement from UK chancellor George Osborne in May that any transfer of powers "has to involve a city-wide elected executive mayor".

The Lords introduced two amendments at the beginning of the Bill requiring parliament to be updated annually on the progress of devolution across the country and making it compulsory for ministers to keep devolution in mind when introducing any legislation to parliament.

They agreed that an annual report on the progress of devolution should be provided to parliament "as soon as practicable after 31 March each year" and that, before the second reading of any Bill, a minister must publish a "devolution statement" confirming that the provisions of the Bill "are compatible with the principle that powers should be devolved to … the most appropriate local level except where those powers can more effectively be exercised by central government".

The Lords agreed that any order from the communities secretary transferring powers and functions from public authorities to the relevant combined authority should be able to include conditions and limitations on the exercise of transferred powers and functions and to provide for them to be jointly exercised. An additional power was added to the Bill allowing for the transfer of powers and functions from public authorities to local authorities.

Further agreed amendments required that any specific regulations or orders transferring powers or functions should be accompanied by a report explaining their effects and why they were considered to be appropriate. A similar reporting requirement was introduced for regulations relating to the governance, constitution, membership, structure and boundaries of local authorities.

Several amendments were made to provisions relating to overview and scrutiny committees (OSC) of combined authorities. Under the amended provisions, an OSC would require the consent of the relevant combined authority to its proposals for the exercise of its powers. Once established, an OSC would be able to direct that a decision under its review could not be implemented until the review was complete.

The Lords agreed that the majority of members of any OSC must be members of the relevant combined authority's constituent councils. They agreed that the chair of an OSC must either be an independent person or an "appropriate person". Anyone in the same political party as a combined authority's mayor would not be considered an "appropriate person" under the amendments. In a combined authority without a mayor, an "appropriate person" could not be a member of the party with the most representatives among constituent councils.

The Lords also agreed that a restriction under the Local Government Act 2000, preventing areas that had voted in favour of a mayor from holding a further referendum on the issue, should be removed by the Bill. This change would allow the people of Bristol, who previously voted in favour of introducing a mayor, to be given the opportunity to vote again.

Planning expert Ben Mansell of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "The amendment to the Bill in the House of Lords to remove the requirement for an elected mayor jars against the chancellor’s insistence that powers will only be devolved in return for an elected mayor. It remains to be seen if this amendment will survive the Bill’s passage through the House of Commons; perhaps unlikely given the majority Conservative government’s support for the policy."

"Greater Manchester already has an interim mayor in office in return for the devolution of powers from Whitehall," said Mansell. "Other areas will be watching Greater Manchester carefully to see how successful the mayoral-led devolution model will be. The other amendments to the Bill reflect checks and balances to ensure devolution is on the right track. It is encouraging to see that the devolution agenda is still high on the government’s priority list and it is serious about addressing the imbalance in the UK economy."

The Bill was laid before UK parliament at the end of May. It will receive its third reading in the House of Lords today, before progressing to the House of Commons after the summer recess.