Metro mayors might have just one chance to make an impact

31 Oct 16

Combined authority mayors being elected next May will have only three years to demonstrate their effectiveness before they face re-election – or possibly even abolition

The fashion in political ideas often reflects a particular moment in time.

After a few lonely years at the Treasury, George Osborne realised he was missing a trick in trying to revive Britain’s wheezing economy on a single, Greater London engine.

The former chancellor’s solution was the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

After rashly scrapping regional development agencies in 2010, he would revive the northern economy with an infusion of powers and money, topped off with elected mayors to give the enterprise some political leadership and direct accountability.

The series of devolution deals that he negotiated with Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands, among others, are sensible and workmanlike and, given time, will make a major difference to the economic performance of the North and Midlands.

But the problem remains in explaining exactly how metro mayors fit in. What will they actually do? This is proving a struggle to explain.

Launching his campaign to become Labour’s standard-bearer in Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham promised to end the ‘complacency’ of the Manchester music scene, which, he contended, was ‘trading on the big names of the past too much’. (Bursaries for bass players, perhaps?)

Then there was Steve Rotherham, Labour’s candidate in Liverpool, pledging to create a flag for Merseyside.

Clearly, neither read the small print.

As Manchester’s council leader, Sir Richard Leese, pointed out, when ruling himself out of contention for the new job, these are roles for workhorses, not show ponies.

Leese said he would rather be having a pint than ‘selling Manchester to investment funds in some anonymous international hotel’.

Metro mayors won’t find themselves posing next to over-sized charity checks in their gold chains. Neither should they expect a warm reception trying to muscle powerful council leaders out of the way.

Instead, they are tasked with driving forward the laborious and uncertain work of improving the productive economic capacity of their conurbation, negotiating with council leaders, investors, business, Whitehall and a mightily confused general public in the process.

Skills, transport, housing, jobs. Each is vitally important, but not particularly sexy.

What’s more, the mayors’ successes will often take place below the political waterline. Convincing a delegation of Chinese state officials to invest in a regeneration scheme, or winning over a roomful of sceptical Frankfurt bankers is the name of the game.

The theatre of the Commons chamber will be replaced by the air-conditioned boardroom of an anonymous office block. Political oratory will give way to endless PowerPoint presentations.

Metro mayors are the very acme of managerial politics, but there is little by way of a ‘retail offer’ to voters. The mayors won’t be running your child’s school, or your grandmother’s care home. Or collecting your rubbish or managing your park.

Amd by 2020, they may have little to show that endears them to voters, or a Conservative prime minister who is already sceptical about the value of their roles to begin with.

After all, Theresa May has a few other pressing problems to contend with and must be wondering why creating a bunch of provincial political barons (who are all likely to be Labour) was ever thought to be a good idea by her predecessor.

This means the mayors need to hit the ground running, for reasons of self-preservation.

But the problem is that producing a spatial planning strategy, or re-engineering the skills mix in their area is not something that gets done in weeks or months.

And even if it is accomplished, so what? Will voters sense a tangible difference?

Here’s the doomsday scenario.

The metro mayors are up again for election in 2020, probably on the same day as the next general election.

They have barely three years to show that they are succeeding in delivering jobs, growth and new homes before they are held to account.

It’s a pretty tall order. Unachievable, even.

Moreover, it’s no secret that council leaders in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands feel they are being bounced.

They are already circling their municipal wagons to protect their turf and would dearly love to curtail the metro mayors' roles.

What if Theresa May simply passes the responsibility to them? What if she offers combined authorities the chance to keep their devolution deals sans elected mayors?

As it stands, all three areas would willingly kill off the role in a heartbeat. Labour council leaders ending the reign of Labour mayors? A red-on-red assassination.

There is already a debate in government about whether to insist on metro mayors to oversee subsequent devolution deals – something George Osborne previously insisted on – or whether to take each case on its merits.

For the first mayors elected next May, theirs will be a tough inheritance, making a series of untested powers stack-up and deliver real, tangible change within three years – with a political gun pointed at their heads the whole time.

If they don’t get this right first time, they may find they are yet another passing political fad.

  • Combined authority mayors being elected next May will have only three years to demonstrate their effectiveness before they face re-election – or possibly even abolition
    Kevin Meagher

    Kevin Meagher was a former special adviser in the last Labour government. He is now the associate editor of the website Labour Uncut

Did you enjoy this article?