Referendums needed on police reforms

This article was first published by the LGC

I’m agnostic about which system of governance councils and communities adopt.   It’s a local choice whether you want the Committee system, the Cabinet system or an Elected Mayor.   

There are already legal provisions that allow councils to change their governance model, such as those that were used recently in Salford, where a Mayoral referendum was triggered by the public, and in Liverpool where the Council voted to move to the Mayoral model.   It was a heavy handed, and ultimately self-defeating, decision by the Government to force certain councils – the largest cities – to have referendums on May 3rd.   Bristol, where controversially Ministers had intervened in the running of the referendum, was the only city to vote Yes.  All the others, even Birmingham, where the putative Mayoral candidates were already in full campaign mode, voted No to the model, to many people’s surprise.   

Some have speculated that these referendum results will cause the Prime Minister and other Mayoral enthusiasts to drop the push. I was at the Downing Street event a few months ago when the PM offered extra powers to Mayors.  He also offered to convene a regular Cabinet meeting of the Mayors and himself, but this meeting is now going to be smaller than the PM expected, with only Liverpool and Leicester at the table.   I hope that the PM looks again at this and decides to include other city Leaders, and in turn to think about other new ways of engaging with local government on more equal terms.

Elections for Police Commissioners are still due to take place in November, but it’s not too late for the Government to put the plans on ice.  The proposals were based on the premise that people want powerful American style directly elected political figure heads, but the Mayoral referendum results put this in doubt.   The Government must surely now fear that the PCC elections will result in historically low turnout?  What real mandate will a Police Commissioner have if they get half the votes on a turnout of less than 20%?    Recent examples of constitutional change of this kind, such as the creation of devolved assemblies, the proposals for regional governance, and the adoption of Mayors, have all been rightly subject to referendums.   The government should do the same for the PCC role and have referendums in November, rather than a headlong rush into elections.