Report shows new Combined Authorities risk being ‘preserve of men’

By agency reporter
April 18, 2017

English devolution risks becoming a "plaything of the old boys' club", according to a new report from the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).

Research by the ERS shows 93 per cent of the most powerful positions – the Mayoralties and their cabinets – in the new Combined Authorities will be in the hands of white men.

The report, From City Hall to Citizens' Hall: Democracy, Diversity and English Devolution, finds that only two cabinet members of all six new Combined Authorities – 5.4 per cent of the total – will be women, and only one – 2.7 per cent of the total – is from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background.

The ERS predicts that just one female Mayoral candidate will win next month (most likely in Tees Valley) with just 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.

With most of the councils making up the new Combined Authorities being dominated by one party, the ERS is also highlighting huge risks for scrutiny – with cabinets and scrutiny committees plucked from the Mayors' own party.

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, 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.

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: "Parties have dropped their guard when it comes to diversity and democracy in the new Combined Authorities. With 93 per cent of the most powerful posts being controlled by men, these institutions risk magnifying the problems of representation that already exist in local government. And many of the new institutions will effectively be 'one-party states', with Mayors held to account by their own party colleagues.

"It's concerning to see the most powerful positions in these new authorities being dominated by the 'usual suspects'. Many of these authorities risk magnifying the problems of local one-party states, with all sorts of risks for scrutiny and accountability. These new bodies can't be allowed to be the preserve of the old boys' club – with the new Mayors and cabinet members often being the same as those who previously had power, only with less accountability.

"Without action now, we risk adopting a major new governance model without any real public buy-in and participation. Voters will see it as a stitch-up. That is a recipe for disaster. It's time to inject some democracy and diversity into English devolution. With the public largely shut out of the process, and models imposed rather than chosen, so far citizen involvement in the constitutional future of their own areas has been minimal. That must change.

"In places where mayors are to be elected, there are now fresh opportunities for the new leaders to open up their doors. The candidates – and the new Mayors when elected – must seize those opportunities are ensure that devolution is built to last, and isn't just the preserve of a small elite. We call on all candidates across the regions to back our seven recommendations for reform, and put real diversity and democracy into English devolution."

Recommendations:

  1. Parties need to take urgent action towards equal gender representation for the councils that make up combined authorities – including steps to ensure women who are elected reach leadership positions.
  2. England and Wales should join Scotland and Northern Ireland in using the Single Transferable Vote method of voting in all local council elections.
  3. Scrutiny committees should be comprised of councillors representing the vote share of parties at the previous election – rather than reflecting seat share – where adequate representation exists.
  4. For effective use of taxpayers' money, parties should make political and demographic diversity a priority for scrutiny committees.
  5. Mayoral elections should be opened up to voters by switching to the Alternative Vote, in order to let voters truly express their preferences, and avoid wasted votes.
  6. Successful mayoral candidates need to build a culture of transparency into the combined authorities from day one. Mayors should draw up a Transparency Charter when elected to ensure voters have faith in these new institutions.
  7. The new mayoralties should be viewed as an exciting opportunity to pursue and experiment with new models of participatory, deliberative and digital democracy. Mayors and Combined Authorities should pursue innovative ways of engaging and involving the public in shaping and making decisions about their communities, such as the use of citizens' assemblies.

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

* Electoral Reform Society http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

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