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Devolution to Scotland, Wales and (erratically) Northern Ireland has left England as a large super-centralised unit within the UK. The Westminster Parliament is now responsible, in domestic policy terms, only for England. Given the post-1945 weakening of English local government and the concentration of power in Downing Street, to be prime minister is, in effect, to be governor of England.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, city leaders in great cities like Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester were responsible for virtually all domestic government. The Imperial Parliament in London was more concerned with the Empire and expanding military power. Trolleybus policy, for example, in Nottingham and Leeds was handled by councillors not Cabinet ministers.
Against this backdrop, the six new city regional mayors elected in May 2017 are a radical innovation. Added to a series of earlier city-focused policies, these mayors have the potential to change England’s government substantially. Although the formal powers available to them and the combined authorities which they convene are limited, they are a building-block in a potentially bigger edifice. Their capacity to deliver major constitutional change will depend on their performance.
Turnout in the May elections ranged from 21 per cent in Tees Valley to 33 per cent in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, with an average just under 30 per cent. Such voting numbers were a good sign, and significantly better than the equivalent figures in the original police and crime commissioner elections. The London mayoral contest saw turnout exceed 45 per cent in 2016, suggesting the other metro mayoral turnouts could rise in future elections.
Thus far, the new mayors have been sure-footed and have fulfilled expectations. Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, faced an almost immediate requirement to represent the city in the aftermath of the attack at Manchester Arena on 22 May. The scale and horror of the bombing required a sensitive and serious response. The new mayor did this nationally and internationally alongside the city council leader, Sir Richard Leese. Sadly, to be a mayor of a major city today requires such skills and feeling. Burnham has continued to be visible in the national media, lobbying for infrastructure and demanding a seat for the English regions at Brexit negotiations.
Andy Street has been active in galvanising a stronger civic community in the West Midlands, including the creation of a commission to consider financing and infrastructure development. The West Midlands had developed combined authority working some years after Greater Manchester, and there was a need to generate stronger civic buy-in to deliver for Birmingham and its city region. Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool City Region, has also been visible. He recently made 10 pledges, including his commitment to a major renewable energy project harnessing the power of the River Mersey.
The mayors of Tees Valley, West of England and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough have also been pro in the national media. Indeed, one of the most important immediate advantages of the metro mayors has been their capacity to command attention from the national media. In a highly-centralised country such as the UK, this visibility is a major benefit for the areas concerned.
The six new mayors will need to sustain and enhance their capacity to deliver. They will need more capacity to plan and deliver policy. The mayor of London has a powerful ‘mayor’s office’ and a number of deputies. All city regional mayors require a strong and effective executive machine.
There will also be issues where the city regional mayors should work together to lobby the government for more powers. Financial autonomy and the control of large-scale services in the hands of Whitehall departments are obvious next steps. The elections of 2017 should be seen as the beginning of a process not the end.
Head of Communications
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