Don't forget the mayoral elections

27 Apr 17

The mayoral elections should be receiving far more attention, given how devolution could boost local economies to benefit residents


voting slips


The mayoral elections should be receiving far more attention, given how devolution could boost local economies to benefit residents

The Brexit vote has increased constitutional uncertainty and put devolution questions back on the agenda. A snap general election has been announced. A second Scottish independence referendum seems to be a matter of when, not if. Northern Ireland is still without a functioning elected assembly, and the UK is holding together by a thread. The prognosis for governability of the whole UK is weak.

But there’s a different devolution story – one that offers hope for responsive, agile and effective government. Local leaders across the country are getting on with the business of the day of tackling inequality and deprivation, attracting investment in quality jobs, and driving inclusive growth.

In early May, voters in six combined authorities in England will elect new mayors. They will lend structure to an emerging shift in the locus of policy and investment decision-making power.

Although the six regions are home to over 9.5 million people, these elections have barely troubled the news. A Google search finds a BBC list of all official candidates and a handful of basic facts but, apart from the odd interview or opinion piece, there is little public discussion and debate. It may be no surprise if turnout is low.

Perhaps commentators have been burned by the experience of police and crime commissioner elections, preferring not to hype the potential of new roles but let legitimacy emerge on its own terms. This position would be valid were the stakes not so high. 
We must respond to Brexit’s wake-up call, not least – as the prime minister said – by making the economy work for everyone. 

To achieve this, the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission argues, we need local leadership that convenes, engages and inspires business, civil society and citizens. 

The commission proposed that combined authorities or groups of councils should have the freedom to pool budgets and investment opportunities, share accountability and jointly commission services. Greater Manchester’s joint, place-based service commissioning of health and social care is a model that could be extended to other areas and services, particularly education and skills. 

In the longer term, places that can demonstrate their ability to manage multiple cross-commissioning arrangements would take on full responsibility for their economic and social outcomes. This would result in the power to coordinate all public expenditure allocated to that place in a new social contract between the subregion, central government and local people. 

Not every place can be a leader in biotech, digital technology or the creative industries. But, if areas create a coherent, credible offer for the industries for which they have the assets – land, labour or capital – to excel, then we can start to deliver on the economic rebalancing that has eluded us for generations. In combined authorities, responsibility will fall to local leaders to ensure the benefits of area growth are broadly shared and felt. This might catch on north of the border as the Scottish Government finds it needs a route to deliver its ambitions for inclusive growth after powers are devolved to Holyrood. 

Theresa May is fighting a war on two fronts; reshaping our relationship with the EU and the rest of world, while holding together the fragile union at home. Against this, austerity is taking its toll and work is increasingly precarious. The devolution story has started to reignite drive and belief in local leaders, which could result in a more effective, coordinated response to local needs and opportunities. If elected metro mayors can be catalysts for this potential to translate into practical change – felt and shaped by local people – then they deserve greater attention. 

  • Charlotte Alldritt
    Charlotte Alldritt

    director of public services and communities, RSA and director of the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission

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