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How England’s new metro mayors can learn from Ken, Boris and Sadiq

London’s current and former mayors offer important lessons on the opportunities – and potential pitfalls – the new metro mayors will face, argues Alexandra Jones, chief executive of Centre for Cities.

In May this year, new metro mayors will take office in some of England’s biggest cities, armed with the largest personal mandates in UK politics aside from Sadiq Khan’s. The new mayors will have powers over housing, transport and infrastructure in their city-region, and so it’s no surprise that high-profile candidates from Westminster and the business community have been drawn to the new roles, including former health secretary Andy Burnham and former John Lewis MD Andy Street. 

However, it’s also clear that the new mayors will face many challenges when they take office. They will need to act on their election pledges and prepare their city-regions for Brexit, as well as establish the new mayoral institutions as a long-term part of Britain’s political landscape. To make the roles successful, it’s vital the mayors visibly address the biggest issues that their city-region faces.  

The mayors will have to hit the ground running from the outset – and to help them do so, they can learn from the successes and mistakes of London’s mayors since the office was created in 2000, highlighted in the recent ‘Seven lessons for the new metro mayors’ report from Centre for Cities. Drawing on interviews with their senior political advisers, the briefing highlights some of the most important lessons the new mayors can take from Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and – despite it being early days – Khan’s experiences in office. 

Setting out a clear vision of what they want to achieve in office, and how they’re going to do it, will be vital to the new mayors’ success. Since the EU Referendum, Khan has been clear about his vision that ‘London is open’ to international businesses and talent, while both Livingstone and Johnson articulated a consistent vision of London as a global city, embracing its diversity and business potential. The new mayors of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Liverpool will face different opportunities and challenges, but each must communicate their view of their city-region’s future, and the policies that will help achieve it. 

The importance of early policy wins 

It will also be crucial to secure an early ‘policy win’, to help shore up public support for the new role and demonstrate the mayors mean business. Shortly after taking office, Khan’s success in implementing the Hopper Fare – allowing Londoners to make a free second bus journey within an hour of paying for their first fare – offered a quick and visible demonstration of what he could do on behalf of the city’s residents. 

Again, precise policies will differ from city to city. For example, our analysis shows that improving Liverpool’s bus network should be a priority for the new mayor, while in Manchester implementing the city-region’s spatial plan should be top of the mayor’s to-do list. The key point, however, is that candidates in every place should have plans up their sleeve for immediate wins they can secure on taking office.

Forming effective working relationships with both national and local government will also be critical for the new mayors. Ultimately, national government will decide how much money they have to spend and which major projects they can deliver, while mayors will have to work closely with cabinets of local authority leaders who can veto some mayoral decisions with a two-thirds majority. But it’s also vital that the mayors take full advantage of their considerable mandate – having been elected by hundreds of thousands of people – to act boldly and decisively on the issues that matter most to their cities. It was by taking advantage of his personal mandate that Livingstone, for example, introduced the congestion charge in 2003, while Johnson went beyond his remit as mayor to oppose plans to expand Heathrow.  

There’s a lot at stake for the new mayors. Learning lessons from elsewhere – both good and bad – will help the new mayors make the right decisions on behalf of the people they will represent, and to secure the long-term future of the mayoral offices in the UK’s political landscape.

For more information

The ‘Seven lessons for the new metro mayors’ report can be accessed at:



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