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Why the new ‘metro mayors’ matter

Parts of England will go to the polls today to elect a metro mayor. Dr Jo Casebourne sets out five key reasons why these new political figures matter.

Tomorrow a new powerful group of political figures will emerge – the six new ‘metro mayors’ for Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, the West Midlands, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England. After the election, a third of the English population, including London, will have a directly elected metropolitan mayor.

Mayoral races are too tight to call in the West Midlands and the West of England. It looks like Labour will win the mayoralty in Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region and Tees Valley, whilst the Conservatives are likely to win in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

But why do these new mayors matter? They matter because England is one of the most centralised countries of its size in the developed world in terms of amount of revenue collected and controlled centrally. English local government has the most restricted powers of any equivalent tier internationally and at a city level, England is dominated by London, both politically and economically. Both central government and local areas have argued that we need to devolve more powers to cities to stimulate local growth and join-up public services, but the reality is that central government will only feel comfortable about devolving power if someone locally is accountable if things go wrong.

There have, therefore, been a number of past mayoral attempts to address this. Elected mayors were first established in England following the election of the Mayor of London in 2000. Later that year the Local Government Act 2000 paved the way for votes to set up mayors in a number of other local authorities. Thirty-eight referendums were held during Labour’s period in office, of which only 13 resulted in a yes vote.

The Coalition gave the model another push in 2010, but voters in nine English cities rejected the idea in another series of referendums in 2012. There were yes votes in Bristol and Salford, however, and Leicester and Liverpool also adopted the model. But these mayors were based on individual local authorities, not city regions, and as they didn’t actually get any new powers, local electorates often didn’t see the point in another type of local politician.

Why the new mayors are different

There are five key reasons that this week’s new metro mayors are very different from these past attempts at mayors in England.

1. They are at the right scale for the issues they are dealing with. They cover city-regions (Greater Manchester), rather than single local authorities (Manchester City Council). This matters because if you want to achieve real change in public services and local economic growth, it means working at a scale beyond a single local authority. These mayors will be leaders of place not leaders of councils.

2. They will be visible and accountable. Local people will know who they are and they’ll be recognised on the national stage and will be taken seriously by national politicians and civil servants.

3. They will be outward-facing in their leadership. Mayors will be able to go on trade missions acting as figureheads for attracting inward investment.

4. They will be able to wield ‘soft power’. They’ll enjoy far better access to secretaries of state than do most backbench MPs and they’ll have the power to convene local public service leaders to sort out problems that require co-ordination.

5. They are the best chance to date of ensuring that devolution is sustainable over time. Mayors will start with powers over transport, the further education system, business support, support to get people off benefits and into work, and, in the case of Manchester, some powers over health and social care (taking charge of health and social care spending and decisions). But as has happened in London they are likely to get more powers over time, and we’ve already seen candidates campaigning on issues they don’t have powers to solve, yet.

Measuring the success of new mayors

The idea that these mayors will be powerful political figures is reflected in the fact that for some candidates being a mayor has become a more attractive proposition than being a backbench MP in Westminster. The advent of these new powerful mayors also means that political career trajectories in the UK are becoming more interesting. We’re seeing more routes to and fro from Westminster to mayors, with both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan moving between the two.

So, how will we know whether these mayors live up to expectations? Turnout today should not be the only way of judging whether these mayors are going to be successful. Turnout this time is likely to be lower due to the general election happening just over a month later, which may mean some people don’t come out to vote twice in such quick succession, particularly in places like Tees Valley where there are no local elections today.

Turnout is likely to increase over time as we’ve seen in London as people see what the mayor can do for them and their city. The success of these new mayors should be judged on whether they improve prospects for the people who live in their city regions, stimulating growth and getting local public services working better.

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