Writing for UK in a Changing Europe, Andrew Carter argues that a post-Brexit England should shift power down to directly elected mayors.
‘Vote Leave, Take Back Control’ was the key slogan from the 2016 referendum. Yet national politicians and policy makers are only now beginning to grapple with exactly where this control is coming back to, which raises important questions about the future role of England’s metro-mayors in a post-Brexit Britain.
Nine of England’s largest city-regions, covering almost 40% of England’s population, are now led by directly-elected metro-mayors. The process began in 2000 with the establishment of the Greater London Authority, headed by the mayor. Jump forward to 2017, and new metro-mayors were elected in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, West of England and Cambridge and Peterborough (and more recently in Sheffield city region and North of Tyne) to take over responsibility for issues including strategic planning, local transport and adult education.
From the outset, this city-focused devolution agenda has had a clear economic rationale: to address the longstanding underperformance of the England’s big cities outside of the Greater South-East, most obviously Manchester and Birmingham.
Because economic geography rarely matches arbitrary council boundaries, the theory behind mayoral devolution is that directly elected, high profile leadership at the economy scale will result in more strategic economic thinking, better programme coordination and delivery, and thus improve job opportunities, wages and quality of life in a mayoral area.
Broadly speaking, metro-mayors are charged with developing strategies for growing their city-regions’ economies and have powers over housing, transport, skills and business support. However, their exact responsibilities vary depending on the details of the deal agreed with central government. For example, Greater Manchester’s metro-mayor has extra powers over criminal justice and health and social care in addition to his economic responsibilities.
While some big cities such as London, Greater Manchester and Birmingham (the West Midlands), are headed by metro-mayors with clear mandates and responsibilities — if not necessarily the corresponding power and resources — the leadership situation is less clear in other places. For example, ad hoc reform has left Liverpool with three mayors: a Liverpool City Region Mayor, a City of Liverpool Mayor, and a ceremonial Lord Mayor of Liverpool.
Meanwhile in Nottingham no substantial reform has taken place. As a result, this city of almost 700,000 people is divided into nine separate authorities with differing powers and often competing mandates and agendas. This makes joined-up strategic decision making very difficult.
A deeper look at the English mayoral devolution process also reveals how underfunded and underpowered the situation is compared to the devolution settlements given to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Whilst not perfect, the home nations’ devolved administrations have the statutory powers to diverge in most domestic policy areas. There are no negotiations or overlaps between Westminster and Holyrood, Cardiff Bay or Stormont and the Sewel Convention and block grant prevent Westminster from intervening in domestic policy outside England.
Currently, however, England’s mayors rely on central government permission and funding to do almost anything. This has created an unsatisfactory and unsustainable ‘halfway house’ for both the mayors and the Government. Boris Johnson critiqued this halfway house when he was Mayor of London. Now, as a premier with an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, he has the power to fix this problem.
Unfortunately, however, the handling of the pandemic has created a serious rift between the Government and the mayors. Back in October disagreements over financial support for cities affected by lockdowns brought the Government and Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham to a high-profile stand-off. While the mayor drew praise for standing up to Whitehall, the incident has undoubtedly soured relations between ministers and England’s metro-mayors just when the Government had been preparing to devolve more powers to them and local government.
Since then, senior figures within Government have cooled on the idea of devolving more powers to the mayors. The Devolution White Paper promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto has been kicked into the long grass. And if the 2021 local elections don’t go well for the Conservatives, and Labour metro-mayors are elected in the West Midlands and the Tees Valley, Government appetite to give more powers, funding and a public platform to what they perceive as the opposition is likely to decrease even further.
This would be a mistake. It remains in both the Government’s and the country’s interest that all of England’s cities and large towns get a wide-ranging devolution settlement.
The next stage of English devolution should include levelling-up existing metro-mayors’ powers to those available to the London Mayor, giving local government full fiscal autonomy, and restructuring Whitehall to reflect the downward powershift, with a new ‘England Office’ managing the relationship between the UK Government and the metro-mayors in the same way that the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices do for their respective home nations.
While it is still possible that these reforms will happen, it is growing less likely and, like many past governments, this one grows more centralising with each day. An argument is growing between the UK Government and devolved leaders in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast over repatriating powers such as fishing, food standards and immigration from the EU.
Yet there is hope. The Government will need to press ahead with devolution to make a success of its levelling up agenda. Many of the promises that the Prime Minister made on the 2019 General Election trail — better bus services, quality adult education, more housing — cannot be effectively delivered in top-down fashion from Whitehall. It would therefore be a regrettable and short-sighted mistake if Boris Johnson, and the Government he leads, decides that more English metro-mayors just aren’t worth the hassle.
This blog originally appeared in UK in a Changing Europe’s paper ‘Brexit and Beyond’. You can read the full paper here.
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Cannot see any comment here on how metro mayors should be accountable to the populations they are meant to serve. London has an assembly. To the best of my knowledge, the other areas don’t