Six regions in England to vote for ‘metro mayors’

Voters in six regions of England on 4 May will elect 'metro mayors' to represent the people and local jurisdictions that make up their metropolitan areas. (

When voters in Great Britain go to the polls for local elections this week, nobody is expecting as dramatic an outcome as last year’s “Brexit” vote.

But for gurus of governance, something very exciting is about to happen. In six regions of England, voters for the first time will elect a “metro mayor” to represent all the people and jurisdictions that make up the metropolitan area.

The move comes almost two decades after Greater London elected its first mayor, an experiment in devolution that is widely viewed as a success. Having a single elected leader helped unify London’s metro area, give the region a more coherent voice and coordinate planning across jurisdictions. It is hoped metro mayors will do the same for other areas across England.

The areas electing metro mayors include the regions surrounding Birmingham (West Midlands), Bristol (west of England), Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Manchester, Liverpool, and Tees Valley.

These areas aren’t getting only a metro mayor but also more responsibility. Each struck a “devolution deal” with the British government. In exchange for increased powers over issues such as housing, transport and workforce development, as well as hundreds of millions of pounds in long-term funding, the regions had to elect metro mayors accountable to citizens. Those elections take place Thursday, 4 May.

To find out more about this experiment in devolution and metropolitan governance, I spoke with Paul Swinney. He’s the principal economist for the Centre for Cities, a think tank that has been a leading voice in the transition to metro mayors. The centre has hosted a number of public events leading up to this week’s vote, produced research to inform the transition, and hosts the definitive FAQ on what metro mayors are all about.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Swope: Where did this idea for metro mayors come from?

Paul Swinney: I suppose it comes from the London mayor, which was a position created in 1999. London was the first place to get something like a metro mayor, effectively one person who is directly elected and spans 33 jurisdictions rather than just sitting over one jurisdiction. And that person has had the power to get things done. Stuff like bringing in a congestion charge in the early 2000s, which at the time was hugely controversial but actually has made a huge difference to how central London operates.

And also being the voice of the place. The different mayors of London have been able to go to central government and negotiate with them, and say, “This is what we want for London, this is what needs to happen for us.” Particularly around transport spending, or discussions around the Olympics, or technical things about being able to get a spatial plan across the economic footprint of the city.

Paul Swinney of the Centre for Cities

So we [at the Centre for Cities] certainly, and a couple of other voices, have been saying,”Why don’t other places get this too?”

Q: Where did the political support come from?

A: George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer [under former Prime Minister David Cameron], was a convert to this idea of having one person, one mayor, who spans across these wider city areas. One person who can think strategically across this whole area that people live and work their lives over, rather than the patchwork of governance that we’ve got at the moment. It was really down to him, as probably the second most powerful politician in the U. K. behind the prime minister. If we didn’t have such buy-in at the national level, we wouldn’t have come to this position.

Now I think that’s created two interesting things. The first one is that the idea of a mayor hasn’t been universally popular. Some places have embraced it, and they’re the places that are going to the polls on May the 4th. But other places did not. What George Osborne said was, we want to devolve power away from central government down to local government. But if we’re going to give those powers away, we want to have somebody who we can hold directly accountable — we want a mayor. And so if you don’t want to accept having a mayor, then we’re not going to give you those extra powers. A couple of big cities in England [such as Leeds and Newcastle] will not be going to the polls for mayor because they couldn’t swallow that.

[See: The rising metropolitan sensibility] 

The second interesting thing is that, since the Brexit vote last summer, and the change in leadership within government [to Prime Minister Theresa May], the new regime is much cooler about the idea of having mayors and devolution. And while we’re going to see six places go to the polls, there’s a question now: What does that mean beyond this? Are we going to get more devolution deals? Are the mayors that are going to come to power, are they going to get more powers in the future? It’s a little bit unclear at the moment.

Q: Back in 2011, the government required the 12 largest English cities outside of London to vote on whether or not to have a directly elected mayor and only Bristol said yes. What’s changed since then?

A: The first iteration of that was to have a mayor just for the core urban authority within a city. Bristol was the only place to actually vote yes in a referendum to say that they wanted to have a mayor. Liverpool and Leicester did also go for a city mayoral model too, but it didn’t go to referendum. So there were three of these mayors created.

[See: Britain’s run with elected city mayors yields strong results but few takers]

The government realized that really what they wanted was not a city mayor but a city-region mayor. A real metro mayor to span across these jurisdictions and actually have these powers passed down. So probably from around 2014 onwards, there was a change in message from the government. All of a sudden, they started to talk about a metro mayor.

Q: Why was that approach seen as important?

A: We’ve got over 300 different local government jurisdictions in the UK. That’s actually quite a lot for what is quite a small island. And one of the big problems that we’ve got, particularly in our cities, is that our biggest cities span way beyond these jurisdictions, which were arbitrary lines drawn on a map. And that makes policymaking quite difficult. Nobody thinks twice of going from, say, Stockport in the south of Manchester, heading north to Manchester city centre, which is obviously Manchester local authority. But policy doesn’t match those boundaries. So what it means is that, where you might want some coordination between those two local authorities or 10 local authorities, you don’t have that formally. By having this one person who sits across all the jurisdictions across Greater Manchester, that person is then there to represent the whole of that area.

It’s all about trying to match policymaking at the level that people live and work their lives over. Policy that matches the geography of the economy. And that’s one of the real benefits of the metro mayoral model, is that it should allow that to happen and hopefully improve how we spend public money as a result.

Q: What kind of enabling structure did the government set up to make this happen?

A: Parliament passed the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act in order to create the positions. Then they went about striking a number of devolution deals with places. And the deal was that the government would enter into a specific negotiation with different places about what powers they thought were necessary to be passed down to the local level to deal with the specific challenges and opportunities that they faced. They’ve then struck that deal with the government, but in return for doing that they had to agree to actually have a mayor put in place.

Within all of these places, there’s been a new council created called a combined authority.The leaders of each of the individual jurisdictions [in a metro area] were then put on the board of the combined authority. It was the combined authority that negotiated with central government. They had to come together as one voice, and negotiate with government to hammer out exactly what it was that they wanted to have.

[See: Metropolitan regions are the ‘new normal’, study suggests]

And so the devolution deals across the six areas vary, in terms of exactly what the different places are getting. There tends to be within these deals money for infrastructure, some powers over adult skills, some powers over transport and powers over planning, too.

Manchester is actually it’s in its fourth round of devolution — they struck a number of deals with George Osborne while he was still Chancellor of the Exchequer. That was because they had a long history of working together, they could talk with one voice as Greater Manchester. They will be getting control over £6 billion of health and social care spending. So effectively, the National Health Service [in the region], that will come under the jurisdiction of the Greater Manchester mayor.

Q: Looking across these six regions that will be voting for metro mayors, did they define the metro areas in ways that make sense?

A: I’d say five out of the six pretty much make sense. If you look at the West of England geography, the combined authority is just Bristol and two neighbouring local authorities. Because of local political friction, a third local authority didn’t want to be part of it. The government has allowed that, but to be honest, I don’t think that’s necessarily ideal.

One that is potentially a little bit more difficult is the Greater Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoral authority. The reality of it is that Cambridge is a very different place to Peterborough, which is a city not very far away just to the north. Their economies probably don’t interact very much. You could have a mayor for Greater Cambridgeshire and wouldn’t necessarily have to include Peterborough.

Now they’ve included Peterborough, and I think that’s okay, but it probably means that the mayor has a little bit of a headache, in that he is actually talking about two very different cities within his “metro area”. Effectively it doesn’t operate as one metro area, it probably operates as two smaller metro areas.

Q: Do voters care about this sort of thing?

A: Certainly in the U. K. at the moment, politicians have a really bad image. To people who don’t know much about what’s happening with the mayors, they could see it as being more bureaucracy, and just another position being created for somebody who is taking a wage from the taxpayer, and it’s another level of bureaucracy between me and central government. If you were to go out and ask somebody on the street, “Would you want a metro mayor?” you might get quite a mixed response.

Now interestingly, we did some polling in a number of the areas that are going to get a metro mayor. And instead of, “Do you want a mayor?” we effectively asked, “Do you think your local politician should have more power over key drivers of the economy like transport, planning, et cetera?” And we tended to get yes on that question. People were very keen to see powers passed down to the local level.

[See: Four challenges to metropolitan governance]

Because there’s been so little power at the local-government level to bring about change, there’s been quite a lot of apathy in terms of local-government voting. This is where hopefully the metro mayor model will change things. Because all of a sudden, we are creating a new position that actually will be, in the larger cities, one of the most powerful political positions in the country. If you look at the Mayor of London, certainly that is a politically very powerful position.

Q: And what are the metro mayors’ levers of power?

A: There’s two. There’s the direct powers that they will have, which will vary from place to place. And then there’s the influence that they can try and exert as well. That influence is going to be really crucial. There will be a cabinet at the metro level, which will be the leaders of the local jurisdictions. If the leaders of the local authorities actually veto what the mayor does, if they get a two-thirds majority in any vote, it might hamstring the mayor a little bit. So what that means is that the mayor will need to be a very good operator in terms of being able to strike deals with local politicians and get them onside, but then also to strike deals with national politicians as well.

Q: Is there any linkage to be made between the new metro mayor positions and Brexit?

A: Not especially. When we’ve been doing hustings events in the run-up to the local elections, Brexit hasn’t really come onto the agenda. What the candidates have said is that they’ll be putting pressure on the government to make sure that they get the best Brexit deal for their particular area. And they will be lobbying on behalf of their metro area. And that’s exactly the right sort of thing to be doing. But I don’t think there’s any direct Brexit implications.

Q: After the 4th of May, what would success look like in these metro areas?

A: Ultimately, you want to see their economies continue to grow, more jobs created, and better paid jobs for the people who live in and around the areas. How exactly the mayors go about that — they’ll take different approaches.

Below that overall goal, success will be having somebody who can speak for the area coherently and sensibly, somebody who can bring about change, drive through things that they want to see driven through, and have a bit of vision about what they want to achieve. And ultimately, take those decision-making powers that have been passed down from national government and apply them in such a way that will actually improve the lives of the people that they’re there to represent.

To turn the question around a little bit, the risk with this model is if there would be a politician who comes in and doesn’t really grasp the agenda. Doesn’t really bring about change. And at the extreme end, then gets embroiled in politics with national government, rather than actually trying to improve the lives of the people that they’re there to represent.

A lot of this comes down to individuals. As you know, across North America, there are great examples of fantastic mayors. But there are great examples of really terrible mayors as well. That is the thing that is left to chance.

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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