By Andrew Topping, Local Democracy Reporter
The potential role of East Midlands Mayor would be a “hugely important position” that anyone would be “mad” to turn down, a Nottinghamshire MP and council leader has said.
Ben Bradley, leader of Nottinghamshire County Council and Conservative MP for Mansfield, set out his stall last week for the creation of an East Midlands Combined Authority.
Ideas include the potential for a regional mayor – similar to a number of existing devolved systems like that of the Mayor of Greater Manchester, currently held by Labour’s Andy Burnham.
While Mr Bradley admitted the role would appeal to him if created, he stressed it may never come to fruition, saying his current focus is on determining the immediate course of action for potential regional devolution.
The plans, he says, could bring more powers on decision-making to the East Midlands and offer a “joined-up” approach to region-wide projects.
It is not the first time devolution for the East Midlands has been discussed in detail. Councils across Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were in talks in 2016 about a deal to combine decisions across both cities and counties, but the plans stalled.
The latest idea has been met by a lukewarm reception from Nottinghamshire Labour, who urged Mr Bradley to ensure any changes have public support.
Mr Bradley’s comments come as Prime Minister Boris Johnson launches a ‘levelling up’ drive, calling on local leaders to put forward plans for their areas.
Mr Bradley, who became Conservative MP for Mansfield in 2017, says the call opens the door for the East Midlands to again consider a devolved system.
“It’s not the case of ‘here’s a fixed plan we must pursue’, it’s finding support for a conversation and I think there already is that,” he said.
“But there’s a scale to this, from a county having more powers over buses, to having massive regional investment and devolution – like the West Midlands or Greater Manchester has.
“It’s about working out what we want.”
The region is one of a handful of areas nationally to not have any devolved powers, while also receiving the lowest per-head investment from the Government.
Supporters of devolution claim it could open the door to regional infrastructure schemes, decentralised power to control public transport costs and drive projects off the back of the high-speed HS2 rail line.
“If you look at the West Midlands, for example, it has an £8 billion growth plan built around HS2 and that’s a massive investment,” Mr Bradley added.
“We’d certainly benefit from being able to devolve national economy growth funding around a package like HS2 in Toton, or the East Midlands Freeport, and drive that in a joined-up way.
“It entirely depends on the scale of what people can agree because, to do something on that scale, it would require the whole region involved.”
The largest benefits from devolution could be achieved by forming a combined authority, in place in areas including the West Midlands and Greater Manchester.
These authorities incorporate several councils and take collective decisions on a cross-council, sometimes cross-county basis.
In areas such as Manchester, mayors have been directly elected to set policy, controlling issues such as health, transport, housing, spatial planning and regional development.
This would only be required in the East Midlands if the larger package of devolution was the end goal.
“It depends on what scale you want to do,” Mr Bradley said.
“I think the bigger the better because there’s more benefit to that, but it’s also more difficult to achieve.”
When asked if the potential mayoral role is his personal ambition, he added: “This is a hugely important conversation and if we have one it will be a hugely important position – one that would have the ability to tackle some of the biggest problems like inequalities in places like Mansfield.
“Any politician would be mad to not be interested in doing something like that.
“But it’s a role that doesn’t exist and may not exist for a number of years.”
Mr Bradley has the belief that, even with full devolution and a combined authority, there would be “no need for a referendum” to decide if the change is needed.
But Labour believes there should be greater public representation in the plans.
Councillor Kate Foale is leader of the Labour group in County Hall.
She said: “Nottinghamshire Labour has some considerable concerns about what devolution actually means for this county, and about how residents will be represented.
“This is about getting proper funding for Nottinghamshire, something this county has been denied for many years.
“Future arrangements must take full account of people’s views, they need to be clearly heard.
“Decisions must not be made miles away by somebody who is speaking for a huge region.”
The issue is due to be discussed by members of Nottinghamshire County Council on Thursday (July 22).
A Tory motion, expected to be passed, will call on the three party leaders to write to the Government in support for an East Midlands ‘levelling up agenda’.