On 3 May, a quiet revolution will be taking place in local government as, for the first time, 10 major English cities vote whether to have a directly elected mayor, and one major English city – Liverpool – actually elects one.
It’s the biggest change to local governance that we’ve seen for decades, and it could signal the start of much greater devolution to local areas – depending on what powers are given to mayors once they’re elected, and whether the geography the mayor could cover is up for discussion at a later date.
For now, a big question is whether enough people even know these mayoral debates are happening and what they mean. Despite elections being just over a week away, it’s still not clear what being a mayor will mean for a local area, either in terms of the powers and funding they gain or the implications it has for local officials. Our latest research - Mayoral Manoeuvres - sets out more about the size of the mayor’s job as it currently stands.
Lack of clarity about what mayors will do is not because the mayoral model lacks support at the heart of Government. Last month, the Prime Minister announced that he would hold a Cabinet for Mayors, enabling them to be heard in Whitehall and Westminster. The Cities Minister Greg Clark has been campaigning for mayors in all the major cities over the past few weeks. And earlier this week, the Prime Minister made a passionate speech in Bristol, advocating the importance of more “swashbuckling” radicals.
There have even been a few signs of potential rewards for opting for a mayor. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the first City Deal was signed with Liverpool when that city agreed to go for a mayoral model.
But it’s still fairly uncertain what additional powers a local authority mayor might have and the next six months – before elections are held in November – are likely to be crucial in informing the powers that mayors initially gain.
The Centre’s work suggests that the powers a mayor should have, at a minimum, include influence over strategic planning decisions, skills and transport.
But our research going back over several years suggests that mayors are no panacea – no governance model is – and that mayors are much more likely to be able to deliver economic benefits if they are mayors for the ‘real economy’, i.e. city region or metro mayors. It’s a finding supported by others, not least the Warwick Commission research published last week.
So while it’s good to see movement on mayors, it’s a shame that cities weren’t offered the option of going for metro mayors. In places like Greater Manchester, where they have a Combined Authority across 10 local authorities, or Greater Leeds where local authorities want to move towards a similar model, metro mayors would surely make more sense and be able to make more of a difference.
It’s not on the agenda this time, so at the Centre we’ll be publicising the issues that local authority mayors should focus on if they are to improve the local economy. But we’ll also continue to campaign for Government and cities to consider metro mayors.