If the answer is more politicians, John Major once said, then you’re asking the wrong question. Clearly George Osborne and David Cameron disagreed, and voters up and down England head to the polls today to elect not just county councillors, but the UK’s first city-region mayors outside the capital, specifically for:
- Greater Manchester
- Merseyside (well, the Liverpool City Region, but you’ll forgive us…)
- West Midlands
- Tees Valley
- West of England
- Cambridgeshire & Peterborough
What will the new mayors do? In short, it depends. City-region devolution was the pet project of the last Chancellor, who was adamant that the deal must fit the region. The last government was true to its word on this, and bespoke devolution deals have been put together for each of the city-regions that will be taking on extra powers.
Manchester, so much to answer for
Manchester has led the way, with a long history of cooperation between the ten Greater Manchester councils. Despite Labour’s dominance locally, it also worked closely with both the Coalition and Conservative governments, with the former chief executive of Manchester City Council taking an office in HM Treasury while the deal was negotiated. It’s no coincidence that the Mayor of Greater Manchester will have the most significant powers. As well as taking on the role of Police and Crime Commissioner, they will have a veto over the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (effectively the Local Plan), and have big roles in transport, housing, health, social care, education and skills. They should also be a figurehead, the voice of the city-region, as with recent Mayors of London.
By and large, the other mayors’ powers read as if they were chosen from the Manchester menu, albeit by politicians on a diet. Or who the government didn’t trust quite as much. As the mayors bed in, we are likely to see new devolution deals signed and new powers flow to them. It may also act as a stimulus for areas like the North East, and parts of Yorkshire, where local political problems mean devolution has stalled.
The crop of local authority leaders and backbench MPs contesting the elections up and down the country has so far failed to set pulses racing, and it remains to be seen whether they can grow into the new offices. The snap general election has also undoubtedly pushed the aspiring mayors out of the spotlight. With Labour expected to suffer on 8th June, the city-regions could offer their best prospects of power.
Runners and riders
In Manchester, former Cabinet minister Andy Burnham is the favourite, though Conservative rising star Sean Anstee, the highly capable Leader of Trafford Council, will ensure the result is not an entirely sure thing. Like Merseyside and Tees Valley, recent history and demographics mean even the cautious punter would back Labour to win, though someone after an outsider with a chance might glance at the Tories in the latter. Burnham has campaigned hard against ‘Westminster politics’. The opportunity to lead a consortium of Labour metro-mayors against a national Conservative government no doubt proves alluring. Will Labour politicians replace George Osborne as the face of the Northern Powerhouse?
Moving slightly south, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough looks in the bag for the Tories, leaving two pretty competitive races: in the West of England, South Gloucestershire councillor Tim Bowles and former Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams seem neck and neck, while a similarly tight race is taking place in the West Midlands. Former John Lewis boss Andy Street carries the banner for the Conservatives against Labour’s Siôn Simon MEP, who has come under pressure from his own party after effectively disowning leader Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Street has spent almost £1 million on his campaign, underlining how seriously the parties are taking these races. The Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham in 2016 was used to throw the party’s weight behind Mr Street, as the party looks to prove it can win a major city-region mayoralty. In recent years, Manchester has often been seen as the government’s ‘favourite’ regional city. Could Birmingham usurp it?
It seems that, while they might be flying under the radar on the national news, the opportunities for greater devolution following these elections are great. Certainly metro mayors look here to stay: and they’ll make a huge difference to politics and governance both regionally and nationally in the years to come. At Redwood Consulting, we’ll be following developments closely over the next few hours and months, and will keep you informed.