The government has suffered a blow to its insistence on places adopting directly elected mayors in return for substantial devolution deals.

A Labour led amendment to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill was passed following a debate in the House of Lords yesterday.

The amendment, moved by Labour local government lead Lord McKenzie, said that an order for a directly elected mayor should “not be used as a condition for agreeing to the transfer of local authority or public authority functions”.

Baroness Williams

‘People need to know who is responsible for major decisions in their area’, Baroness Williams said

However, Department for Communities and Local Government’s minister Baroness Williams successfully moved an amendment which she said would “provide assurance that any future devolution arrangements will continue to uphold existing accountabilities and national standards for the NHS”. The amendment will allow limitations to be attached to the transfer of powers from a public authority to a combined authority.

She said: “This could, for example, enable a conferral of health powers on a combined authority to be accompanied by a condition that the combined authority must also meet the current statutory duties held variously by the secretary of state for health, NHS England and clinical commissioning groups, thereby ensuring continuation of current NHS accountabilities and standards.”

Baroness Williams said the Labour amendment on elected mayors was “directly at odds” with the government’s stance.

“We have this policy for good reasons,” she said. “We have it because where there is devolution of the ambition and scale as in Greater Manchester, there needs to be a clear, single point of accountability. People need to know who is responsible for the major decisions in their area - decisions which will affect their daily lives.”

She said combined authorities could win lesser powers than those agreed in Greater Manchester without having an elected mayor, and warned that voting in favour of the amendment would “frustrate” the Conservative manifesto commitment to implement Greater Manchester’s devolution deals. She added it would “obstruct our policy of allowing major powers to be devolved to a city”.

Lord Heseltine, a special adviser to the government, called it a “wrecking” amendment.

However, 240 peers voted in favour of the amendment, beating 175 who opposed it.

Baroness Williams was successful in getting an amendment through which stated terms of office will be four years for elected mayors.

Any amendments to the bill could still be overturned by MPs when it goes to the House of Commons for debate. While the Conservatives have a majority in the Commons, some senior Conservatives have voiced concerns about directly elected mayors, HSJ’s sister title Local Government Chronicle has reported.