Devolution inaction in Warrington

Cheshire and WarringtonLast week, we had one of those moments where a private discussion becomes a very public disagreement. We were told that an elected mayor for Cheshire could become a reality as part of a devolution deal including Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, and Warrington. The article included a reactive statement, in which all three councils appeared happy with the prospect. Within 24 hours, though, we heard that Warrington was far from on board with the plans, and a planned consultation on the deal had to be put on hold. Given the Chancellor’s constituency lies right in the heart of Cheshire, it would have made sense for it to be a standard bearer for how to implement devolution in similar regions across the country. That looked to be the case in April when the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark, met with the leader of Warrington Council, Cllr John O’Neill, for talks described as ‘positive’ by the latter. So what’s causing the problem?

Bridging party divisions

One of the more surprising features of the devolution deals is that they have managed to bridge party lines between national and local government, but, so far, most agreed deals in the North have been with Labour-dominated city regions such as Manchester and Liverpool. Areas with a mix of Conservative and Labour representatives such as West Yorkshire, and now Cheshire, are seeing local politics become a stumbling block. The issue of an elected mayor has long since been a sticking point for several areas, regardless of political leanings, but many have deemed the financial benefits outweigh the potential for political headaches. The MP for Warrington North, Labour’s Helen Jones, made it clear, however, that an elected mayor was a major obstacle for her, saying:

“In terms of Warrington, this is not real devolution at all because what it will do is, very likely, give a Tory power over areas that overwhelmingly vote Labour.”

The Labour-run Cheshire West and Chester Council, however, is very much a major player in negotiations, seemingly happy with the plans, and its leader, Cllr Samantha Dixon, has expressed disappointment with the latest stalemate, commenting that: “We believe that the proposed devolution deal would benefit every resident in Cheshire and Warrington.” Strictly from a party-politics perspective, the argument that Warrington could end up with too much Conservative influence seems strange when a fellow Labour council is supportive of the deal. Also, the idea of devolution is that it would bring powers down from central Government rather than take them away from local authorities, and many of these powers currently reside with a Conservative government in Whitehall. George Osborne has also said that although he is in favour of elected mayors, he wouldn’t impose them.

So what’s really gone wrong?

Given that Cllr O’Neill has commented on the positive talks about the plans, it looks like it is the Warrington Labour Group as a whole that is the primary source of objection, especially since they overwhelmingly voted to reject the plans shortly after the announcement. In reality, it is just as likely that Warrington is concerned about being lumped in with Cheshire once again and, as the smaller authority, will find itself playing second fiddle when it feels it could be the lead.

Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East, have both had their issues, with the latter’s Local Plan saga being perhaps one of the more public examples of how the politics of development in particular is causing a headache. Warrington, on the other hand, has done a lot to attract the kind of investment that makes it the perfect stop-gap between Manchester and Liverpool. Its excellent transport links and strategic location enable it to attract companies such as Hermes and Asda (whose distribution centres are hard to miss when traveling down the M62); Birchwood Park has also made the borough a bit of a hub for the technology sector. Warrington clearly feels it is moving in the right direction, and has itself to thank more than anybody else for the progress that’s been made.

The Warrington independence movement

What makes the Warrington and Cheshire situation different from other areas is that by signing a devolution deal, the political problems caused by an elected mayor only add to the general concern that the town could be taking a step backwards in the long-term. The £50bn carrot being dangled in front of Warrington will not be enough to offset the political consequences of a deal, especially if it feels it can do better on its own. And after spending years trying to distance itself from Cheshire, with one swift signature, Warrington could see itself pulled right back in – something that it doesn’t appear to want to do lightly.

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