Lord O’Neill: cities which were bold in introducing mayors are now being rewarded

JimO’Neill reflects on the progress made so far by metro mayors, and what should come next in the devolution agenda

It is almost definitely far too early to judge the success or otherwise of the metro mayors, with it being just over 6 months since they appeared on the scene. That said, just like anything else these days, judgement can and is made.

Obviously for me, given my role as a Treasury Minister from May 2015 until September 2016, I was heavily involved in negotiating the devolution deals for those areas that elected to have mayors as a sign of the preparedness to take the accountability which came with the desire for more responsibility and autonomy.

I was therefore, really pleased, and proud when the mayoral elections took place in May, and indeed, slightly pleasantly surprised by the voter turnout – which although low by the standards of general elections, was higher than expected beforehand by those involved. And if they are like London, then the public involvement will grow in the future, as general awareness of the Mayoral function grows.

Looking at policy developments since May, especially those announced in the November budget, it is plainly clear that those urban areas that took the bold decision to elect Mayors were rewarded relative to other urban areas that didn’t.

Not only did the West Midlands receive a second devolution deal, but the Chancellor announced an intention to agree second deals with both Liverpool and the Tees Valley region. In addition, strikingly the new Transforming Cities Fund was allocated pro rata exclusively to those areas with elected Mayors, with the rest of the pot available to all other urban areas around the country in terms of bidding for an allocation.

In my view, this should be regarded as a very clear message to other urban areas that, for whatever reason, have so far failed to present their plan for elected Mayors. In this regard, it was also really good to see the announcement, at least in principle, of a new deal for North of the Tyne. This exciting news was clearly linked to other monies that were given to the Tyne area in terms of transport monies.

If I were at the heart of economic planning for other urban areas, I would interpret these developments as a very clear signal as to what they need to do. There are at least three other urban areas that could have also been benefiting from these polices, if they had not allowed their own regional bickering to interfere with ambition to deliver more for their citizens. Hopefully the budget announcements will spur some of these into renewed action and focus.

Three thoughts for the future of the mayoral agenda

As for those places with mayors, I think there are probably three areas to focus on for 2018 and beyond. Firstly, to press government into actually delivering on the full commitments from the deals already made, which I know from my conversations hasn’t yet fully occurred.

Secondly, in terms of new areas for devolved policies, I continue to believe that we are probably closer to the beginning than the end. As I often say, in keeping with the spirit of devolution, it really should be up to the individual regions to successfully persuade central government as to what they confidently believe they could deliver better in terms of economic improvement. This said, I can see health devolution – pending on how it develops in Greater Manchester – this certainly being an area for other places, and of course, more developments in terms of skills devolution, and through time, perhaps even aspects of education provision (although in the near future, this is unlikely given the philosophy of the current government).

Thirdly, and not withstanding what I have just said, I think it would be interesting for the mayors to explore collectively what they might all share in terms of desire for fresh powers – including revenue raising and spending abilities – and attempt to persuade government for some policies from a collective stance.

When I chaired the Cities Growth Commission from October 2013 through to October 2014, we focused on 10 different urban areas in England outside of London (there were four outside of England) in terms of thinking about their future economic potential. In our final report, I wrote that we thought perhaps only two were then ready to take the responsibility for devolution deals. Three years later, there are five of them now with Mayors, and by this stage next year, another two are likely. This is pretty good progress in my judgement.

This week Centre for Cities is bringing together the UK’s metro mayors with US counterparts for the first ever UK-International metro mayors’ summit – more information is available here

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