At first sight, as we enter the mayoral election campaigns, it might appear that Government and city mayors will share both the Budget’s diagnosis and focus for action and investment. Those in the Midlands and the North will support the big boosts to infrastructure, skills and R&D that underpin the Government’s ‘levelling up’ ambitions. Each Mayor, from Andy Street in the West Midlands to Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley, have all bemoaned regional and intraregional inequality and supported a similar focus on these policy areas during their mayoralties. But all would like more resources and powers over spending decisions too.
The big question facing these mayors will be how much of the promised investment will come under their control and feature in any new powers offered in the Devolution White Paper. However, in each of these areas Whitehall has kept a pretty tight grip on policy and spending and there are no obvious signs that this is about to change.
This makes writing mayoral manifestos quite tricky. Each will have ’levelling up’ challenges within their own city regions. Dudley and Wolverhampton, Oldham, Rochdale, Peterborough, Wisbech, Hartlepool, Redcar will continue to be foremost in the thinking of mayors based in Manchester, Birmingham, Cambridge and Stockton. But so too will the ‘levelling up’ of the regions as a whole compared to London and the South East. They’ve all campaigned on the importance of science and R&D. Most have prepared a Local Industrial Strategy. All have said how important skills are and all want more control over how money is spent.
The Budget offers a big increase in R&D with Government funding increasing to an annual total of £22 billion by 2024/25. £800 million will go to the new Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) championed by Dominic Cummings. There is also £1.5 billion to spend on FE college buildings, alongside a consultation on how to spend the £3 billion National Skills Fund originally announced in the Conservative Manifesto. All will be shaped and finalised in the Spending Review so there is a lot to play for.
But what would you promise in a manifesto in May? That national government and its departments and agencies – from DoT and DfE to ESFA to UKRI – will sort it all out? Or would you promise to have the Government’s ear on each or any of these issues – theoretically easier for Ben Houchen and Andy Street – to local voters? Or would you promise that future devolution deals will deliver you more actual power in each or any of these commitments? Would you trust Boris and his newly centralised team across No 10, No 11 and the Cabinet Office?
There are other more prosaic challenges. Even if you felt confident that you could win more such concessions on skills or R&D, how would you describe it in your actual campaign? Industrial strategy hardly feels like a popular vote winner. Who has even heard of the ‘Strength in Places’ fund operated by UKRI? Or the 2.4 per cent R&D target. Or ARPA?
R&D spending might be vital in tackling productivity weaknesses in the regions but spending largely takes place on university campuses and they have their own sometimes tenuous or testing relationships with local communities. It is not as obvious as it might be that it will translate into better paying jobs or living standards.