02 May 2017

On the 4 May six city regions will elect metro mayors. Lucy Campbell says they will need to focus on building effective relationships with ministers and MPs rather than rely on big personalities and local authorities to fulfil their ambitions.

The General Election may be filling headlines, but we are only a few days away from the election of new metro mayors. The IfG has argued before that these six political figures in Greater Manchester, Liverpool, the West of England, Cambridge and Peterborough, the West Midlands, and Tees Valley are the best chance yet for meaningful and sustainable English devolution.

Last week the IfG, in partnership with Grant Thornton, hosted a panel event on the future relationships between the new mayors and other political players.

Can mayors work together with Westminster?

Managing big personalities  

We are living in “the time of the personality” in politics, according to panellist Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Communities and Local Government select committee. Mayors can capitalise on this to champion their areas and use their ‘soft power’ to ask for more powers from central government.

But managing these big personalities will be more difficult than some in combined authorities may yet have realised. Mayors’ powers are at present quite restricted, with the focus on housing and planning, investment funds, policing, and transport. But with many of the candidates being big characters, with even bigger manifestos, the new mayors are going to come in expecting to use the combined authority to get their mayoral priorities through. There are also potential clashes ahead when mayors, local MPs and ministers are of different political parties and it will be interesting to see if they can work well together to get the best for their city regions.

Being agents of change

Some candidates have positioned themselves as bridges between local and central government; others as agents of change to the existing system. But mayors will need to be both: working together to lobby for more powers from central government whilst also shaking up the way city regions work locally, to join up public services and increase growth.

Panellist Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of the Centre for Cities, notes that the UK has taken centralisation to its zenith, which has failed to meet England’s political and economic needs. Metro mayors can help form a mezzanine level of government, with a wider geographical reach than leaders of individual local authorities. But mayors who extend their powers too far into councils’ remits are likely to face what Jim McMahon, MP for Oldham West and Royton in the Greater Manchester mayoral patch, calls “the most effective weapon in local government”: passive resistance. The IfG has previously noted the importance of local buy-in to make a success of English devolution. Combined authorities have worked thus far as a ‘coalition of the willing’, so mayors will need to be collaborative locally if they want to make progress.

Scrutiny

Given the grand ambitions of candidates’ manifestos, Jacqui McKinlay, Chief Executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, warns about the potential of “mission creep” and the need for the public to understand mayors’ responsibilities. Currently, combined authorities are only expected to have one scrutiny officer but more investment in scrutiny is needed – not just to hold mayors to account but to change how the public engages with government. One way of doing that could be through having local Public Accounts Committees.  

But scrutiny is not solely focused on “following the pound”: transparency and openness are valuable in their own right. Local areas were not fully engaged in the development of these devolution deals – so it is important that local enterprise partnerships, councillors and the public are involved in future devolution deals, along with ministers and MPs.

Measuring success

Mayors only have three years in office until the next mayoral election – this is a very short time to fulfil their manifesto promises. Our panellists argue that one success measure would be if metro mayors have raised the profile of their position by 2020. If they can follow the trajectory of the Mayor of London, with voter turnout improving over time, mayors can become a sustainable and powerful boost for devolution.  

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