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A week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson once said. Yet seven months – the time our new metro mayors have been in office – really isn’t a long time at all. This is the conundrum at the heart of every political system: the tension between the immediately necessary and what is important for the long term.
Each of the new mayors is responding differently to these imperatives. No great surprise there. Each faces a different set of conditions, opportunities and challenges. Again, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Andy Burnham has raced out of the starting blocks in Greater Manchester. He’s a media-savvy former Cabinet Minister with an established political team, and an even longer established polity in Greater Manchester with an unrivalled institutional settlement (though the Tees Valley set up isn’t bad either).
Andy Street in the West Midlands has seized the initiative too. If he can cohere and drive the West Midlands in the way he wants long term, it can leverage its untapped potential (which is probably bigger than in Greater Manchester) to be the really big win for the new mayoralties and for the mayoral experiment for the UK. Street is also the principal conduit to the Conservative Party, a role he needs to use both for the benefit of the West Midlands and the cities more generally, paving the way for more devolution.
The role as conduit to Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition must surely fall to Steve Rotheram, the former parliamentary private secretary to Jeremy Corbyn, in Liverpool City Region. He needs to play a part in focusing the attention of the opposition on the potential of the mayoralties to do more of the work to deliver economic heat and light to the hard-pressed urban communities of Brexit Britain. But Mayor Rotheram, like his counterparts in Cambridge and Peterborough and West of England, has more pressing work to do at home too: holding a mirror up to the place and brokering what is in many respects a new (and to a degree contested) sense of what it is to be a metro city region.
So the mayors and their mayoralties have their work cut out. They have limited powers and budgets and work to do locally and nationally. Their task has been helped by the recent Industrial Strategy.
But there is much, much more the Government could do by calling on the mayoralties (including their constituent local authorities) to deliver on the big issues: housing, deprivation and productivity.
This would take the form of more frequent, consistent and voluble support, more devolution and the financial freedom to find new ways of tackling old problems. Locally and nationally there is a question too many people in positions of importance have still to answer at this point in time. Do they and do we really want the mayoral system to deliver? If so, more local and national political leaders, ministers and their officials need to get off the fence and give the new mayoralties the chance to fulfil the role they were set up to deliver.
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