Derbyshire council chief disputes claims new ‘super authority’ will cost taxpayers more

A Derbyshire chief has dismissed claims that Council Tax will rise if the region gets an elected mayor as ‘pure speculation’, as local authorities await word from the Government over a joint bid for devolved powers.

By Christina Massey, Local Democracy Reporter
Wednesday, 13th April 2022, 3:38 pm

The bid for the so-called East Midlands Mayoral Combined Authority (East Midlands MCA) requests an elected mayor to have the power to create a precept – an additional charge on a Council Tax bill – however Derbyshire County Council Leader Councillor Barry Lewis claims this was done as part of the process of negotiation to secure the maximum powers possible.

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Derbyshire County Council leader Barry Lewis.

“That’s the right way to start a negotiation, go in with everything and see what you come out with in the end,” he stated.

Coun Lewis said negotiations were in the early stages and he couldn’t say how much an elected mayor was likely to cost, but believed the cost could be ‘absorbed’ by the four authorities that would make up the East Midlands MCA, as it would be a large Council Tax base to draw upon.

He added: “It’s pure speculation to say that it will lead to a rise in Council Tax, it’s one of the things that we have to do as part of our discussions.”

The move comes after the Levelling Up White Paper released earlier this year invited Derby and Derbyshire to apply for devolved powers.

Coun Lewis said he hoped the combined authority would follow a model similar to that of Vision Derbyshire, with councils working together to ‘align services and see savings rather than increases’.

In response to conjecture that the addition of a new tier of governance could lead to the dissolution of district and borough councils, the county leader ‘categorically stated’ this was not the case.

“Not happening – we’re quite clear on this,” he said.

“This is non-structural reform.

“The Vision Derbyshire work we’ve been doing after the last two and a half years has very much set the stage for where we are here in Derbyshire with regard to the relationship with our districts and boroughs – so we see them as partners at local level in this.”

Coun Lewis said the white paper did not require local government reform, but admitted there was no way of knowing what central Government would call for in the future, commenting: “Who knows what Government is going to do in five or 10 years time?”

The leader has previously stated he did not want an elected mayor, however said that things were different now with the introduction the Government’s Levelling Up agenda, which aims to distribute powers, resources and funding more fairly throughout the country.

He commented: “As the East Midlands, we’re woefully under-invested in.

“If it takes an elected mayor to get that extra investment to do all the infrastructure that we need to have across our region, then that’s exactly what we need to do – that’s a rationale for having a mayor.”

Coun Lewis added that he believed Derbyshire businesses were ‘crying out’ for devolution powers to fall to the region, bringing with them the prospect of additional investment.

The proposed East Midlands MCA would be the third largest in the country, overseeing around 2.2million people.

This means an elected mayor would have a constituency more than 22 times that of the average MP, with just under 100,000 voters.

With this in mind, some have questioned whether it would be too much power for one individual, however Coun Lewis said he didn’t think this would be the case.

“A mayor may have power, but they don’t necessarily have the ability to deliver, and where you need the delivery model is in the structure below you,” he commented.

“A mayor is a relatively modest role in terms of, yes it’s that loud voice, but it still needs the backing of the local authorities.

“So I don’t see it as a major layering of powers.”

At this early stage, Coun Lewis said it was difficult to say exactly how the governance of the combined authority would be laid out.

Likewise, he was unable to say what effect an elected mayor may have upon the counties’ two police and crime commissioners (PCCs), who – according to the bid – could potentially lose some powers to them.

“There has to be a conversation between the PCC and the potential mayor as to how that shapes out,” he commented.

The authorities involved in the bid are currently awaiting a response from the Government, which could arrive any day now, indicating whether they can enter into further discussions.

Coun Lewis said an informal consultation was likely to be held with the public to determine their views and expectations, and the matter would need to be voted upon by full council.

If all goes according to plan, it is hoped that the East Midlands Combined Authority will be identified as a pathfinder authority by Autumn, with legislation passed in April/May next year, followed by the eventual implementation of the scheme in 2023/24.