24 March 2017

In May, metro mayors will be elected in six of the city regions that have secured devolution deals. Lucy Campbell argues that mayors will be able to wield soft power to shape the futures for their local areas.

On 4 May, 6.7 million citizens will choose a metropolitan mayor. The result will be one third of the English population, including London, having a directly elected mayor. Unlike earlier attempts at mayors who covered single local authorities (for example, the area covered by Bristol City Council), these new figures will be ‘leaders of place’ with strategic focus over their whole city region (for example, the West of England mayor will cover Bristol, Bath, North-East Somerset and South Gloucestershire). They will be visible and accountable to citizens, while wielding the ‘soft power’ and influence they have as figurehead for their regions.

This week the IfG and Grant Thornton hosted a panel event on the future relationships between mayors and Whitehall. We heard that the ambitions for the new mayors are big and a shift of power has begun – but that it may take time for new mayors to grasp all the opportunities.

How far do powers stretch?

While each devolution deal is different, the powers on offer largely focus on housing and planning, investment funds, policing, and transport. But this hasn’t stopped mayoral candidates from being much more ambitious, calling for changes to schools and social care in their areas. This is where city-regions may benefit from mayors’ soft power and big personalities to lobby central government for further powers. However, this may be challenging given that central government’s attention has seemingly moved on from devolution since the departure of George Osborne, who as Chancellor led the agenda. Panellist John Wrathmell, Head of Strategy at New Economy Manchester, highlights a striking example of this: there were 44 mentions of devolution in the 2016 Budget, compared with only two in the 2017 Budget. But our panel asked whether mayors can make the case for a new relationship between central and local government if working together?

What about fiscal devolution?

One area where the ambition is especially strong is further fiscal devolution, which will be a key indicator of the ability of mayors to get more powers over time. This is not only about the amount of money devolved, but also the number of conditions that are attached to it: the IfG has previously noted that devolved grants are rarely free of strings, but rather require local authorities to make trade-offs.

How will mayors be held to account?

New scrutiny arrangements, largely led by the combined authorities, will be put in place for mayors. Within each city region, local authority leaders will make up a combined authority cabinet which will oversee (and have the potential to reject) strategies and spending plans. Furthermore, each combined authority will have an Overview and Scrutiny Committee, where the Chair cannot be of the same party as the mayor.

How will new mayors work with Whitehall?

As a single and accountable representative to engage with, metro mayors should be beneficial to Whitehall. While questions remain about the civil service’s capacity for devolution, panellist Tom Walker, Director of the Cities and Local Growth Unit, argues that the ‘magic ingredients’ for successful mayors will be their political will and leadership and Whitehall staying in ‘listening mode’. It is likely that the process will take time, but relationships with Whitehall are already shifting (for example, the recent Housing White Paper states that metro mayors can help government understand local circumstances and develop spatial development strategies). 

Further information

Watch or listen to the full event – How will new mayors work with Whitehall to improve their city-regions?

Our final event in the English Local Leadership series – Mayors, MPs and Ministers: Can they work together? – takes place on 25 April and will explore these issues further.