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Steve Rotheram’s victory in the Liverpool City Region’s metro mayor election came as little surprise, with the former Labour MP for Walton securing 59 per cent of the vote in what is one of his party’s staunchest strongholds. This put Rotheram in charge of an Investment Fund worth £900 million over 30 years, and gave him powers over transport, housing and employment & skills.
In his first speech after the election, the new Liverpool City Region mayor set out his priorities for his mayoralty, which include joining up the transport network and boosting digital infrastructure to better connect the six boroughs that make up the combined authority. Since then, he has appointed his team and set out a plan for the city region organised around five key words: ambitious, fair, green, connected and together.
After six months, it’s too early to gauge the impact of this long term vision, but it’s clear that Rotheram is already making an impression on the national and local level.
Rotheram’s impact has been most visible in his representation of the city region’s needs and interests on the national political stage. He has demonstrated the capacity to be pragmatic in his dealings with central government despite party political differences, while also challenging national leaders when necessary.
In his mayoral campaign, Rotheram consistently attacked the Government’s austerity policies, unsurprisingly given the political landscape in the Liverpool city region. But moving from the poetry of campaign to the prose of office, Rotheram used his first speech as mayor to invite the Prime Minister Theresa May to Liverpool to discuss the issues facing the city region, and the potential for the mayor to take on more devolved powers. By doing so, Rotheram signalled his willingness to engage and collaborate with national government, which will be essential to bringing about change in his city region.
However, he has also taken the Government to task when necessary in order to raise the concerns and needs of the people he represents. For example, Rotheram has been vocal in criticising the Government over the introduction of Universal Credit, calling for the mayors to have greater influence and powers over managing its rollout. He has lobbied for the mayors to have control over the apprenticeship levy, arguing that the current underspend in this revenue could be used to deliver other employment training programmes for young people.
Most prominently, Rotheram – who made lobbying for Crossrail for the North a key election campaign – has joined with his fellow Labour mayor Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) to campaign for greater investment in transport in the city region and across the north. Together, the metro mayors in the north west have put this issue at the top of the national political agenda. For example, when the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling cancelled the electrification of the Leeds-Manchester rail line in July, it was Rotheram and Burnham who stepped into the breach to voice the anger and frustration of people living in their cities. This intervention – which represents the most high profile moment of Rotheram’s mayoralty thus far – helped to create a political headache for the Government over the summer, and illustrated the leadership and representation that Rotheram (and Burnham) are offering to their cities.
One of the key challenges facing Rotherham is managing political relationships within the combined authority. Liverpool city region’s mayor, along with the West of England mayor, faces a different geographical challenge different from other combined authorities in two respects. Firstly, both city regions are composed of one big local authority which accounts for the lion’s share of the combined authority’s overall population – in Rotherham’s case Liverpool – along with other relatively smaller authorities (Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral). Both city regions also feature a directly elected mayor within the main local authority – in Liverpool’s case, Joe Anderson, who had was pipped to the post of Labour candidate for metro mayor by Rotheram.
In this context, it was to be expected that there could be some tensions between the city region mayor and the city mayor. Resolving and managing these issues will be critical for Rotheram, who will need the support from local leaders across the city region to make the most of his devolved powers in the coming years.
Our analysis suggests that the biggest issue holding back the economy of the Liverpool city region is skills gaps in its workforce. This is reflected in the fact only 53 per cent of students in the area achieve five good GCSE results (A*-C), lower than the average across England and Wales (58 per cent). While this poses a significant challenge for Rotheram to address, it also offers the mayor an opportunity to have a long term impact. His plan for the city region recognised the need to address this issue, featuring pledges to map and bridge skills gaps, and to focus on raising school standards. Both will be critical in ensuring the city region has the skilled workforce needed to attract businesses and jobs – as well as boosting wages – and should be a top priority for Rotheram in the coming years.
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