New metro mayors could use transport policy to great effect

Source: PSE - April/May 16

Luke Raikes, a research fellow at IPPR North, examines how new metro mayors could transform their transport networks and unlock the economic potential of their city-regions.

The shape of local public services has transformed since 2010, but next year it is the governance of these services that will change – and quite dramatically. On 4 May 2017 citizens in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the north east and other areas across the country will elect ‘metro mayors’ to govern their city-regions. 

This will be a significant moment. At 2.8 million, Greater Manchester is not far short of Wales’ population – and its economy is in fact bigger. 

And, in some ways, these mayors could hold more power over their cities than the mayor of London does over the capital. 

Leader of leaders 

The combined authority structure means they could become essentially a ‘leader of leaders’ – working closely with their constituent districts to make sure public services respond to the needs of their citizens. They could be just the catalyst required for these local authorities to become greater than the sum of their parts. 

Transport will be a vital area of policy, and a key political battleground. Londoners might be surprised to learn that in the rest of the country buses compete on the street for passengers, in what can either be a complete free for all, or can leave some people with no services at all. This makes Oyster- or contactless-style ticketing impossible, prevents investment and makes public transport significantly harder to use. 

Mayors in the north should soon have the power to ‘franchise’ their buses in the same way TfL does – a welcome but long overdue step.  But they could do far more, as IPPR North research shows. 

With the right leadership they could use their transport networks to change how people experience their daily commute, as well as transforming their city’s economy, supporting social inclusion, sustaining the environment and achieving public health outcomes. Mayors could connect their unemployed citizens with the jobs they need with new, better-coordinated bus networks; they could extend out new tram lines, so that suburban commuters can leave their cars behind; they could unblock congestion that cripples our city centres; and bear down on harmful emissions. 

To do so they will need to invest, and that means raising revenue from the right sources. Each city is different and will require a different approach. But the candidates should first look at the powers they’re already set to have: workplace parking levies, congestion charges and the 2p business rate premium. 

Central government support 

But central government should enable them to go further. Whitehall should make implementing these charges far easier, and lift the cap on the business rate premium. It should allow mayors to spend this money on whatever mix of transport investments their city needs. 

For mayors to do so will require firm leadership. But while executive power can be a great enabler, in isolation it can lead to poor decisions and wasted public money. Mayors, therefore, need to be held accountable with firm checks and balances. So we also need to see beefed-up local transport committees, to enable the representation of the diverse communities that make up our cities. 

With the right leadership, our major cities could be transformed. But a mayor is only one of the leaders such change will need: leaders from across the public, voluntary and private sector will also need to work together. With this leadership, in time our cities could have transport networks their citizens deserve.

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