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Why metro-mayors matter to the devolution agenda

Alexandra JonesIn five years we might be asking not whether metro-mayors are too powerful, but whether they are powerful enough, argues Alexandra Jones, chief executive of the Centre for Cities think tank, in this guest blog for PSE.

Relinquishing control is never easy, particularly when you’re the most centralised state in the developed world. Yet over the past five years, a quiet transformation has been taking place, as the government has started to decentralise power across the country through city deals and growth deals. Since Greater Manchester’s 2014 devolution deal, the pace has picked up, with a host of other cities also securing agreements to take on new powers in exchange for agreeing to have metro-mayors. 

Not everyone is happy with either the changes or the process, as highlighted most recently in a report published last week by the Communities and Local Government select committee. Alongside concerns about the speed of changes and lack of public engagement, one of the biggest issues raised is around metro-mayors – whether places should have to introduce them, worries that mayors will be too powerful and criticisms that there is insufficient provision for scrutiny.

But in focusing on the potential flaws of the metro-mayor model, are we at risk of overlooking the benefits that mayors could offer to UK cities?

Joint research by the Centre for Cities and Institute for Government found that mayors can play a crucial role in supporting city economies. Firstly, mayors offer leadership and representation – both in terms of decision-making, but also in making the case for these projects to the businesses and residents, who ultimately foot a large portion of their costs. Secondly, this visibility and representation gives public accountability for projects as they are introduced and implemented. Finally, the mayor has a more informal (but critical) role to play in overseeing and bringing together the complicated web of agencies and organisations involved in any large city.

For example, during the 16 years the London mayor has existed, he has been pivotal in delivering a number of major infrastructure projects now synonymous with the capital, but which otherwise might have struggled – including the Congestion Charge, the 2012 Olympic Games and the Crossrail project. All were costly, contentious, and involved lots of interests, including national and local government, businesses, special interest groups and the public, which made them difficult to manage and oversee.

It is true there has been little public consultation about either the introduction of mayors or the wider devolution process. It was, however, a key part of the Conservative Party’s electoral manifesto, for which the government has a mandate, and the deals are being negotiated between nationally and locally elected politicians. Mayors, too, will be elected – so there is an opportunity for citizens to hold one individual to account for big city-wide decisions. Nonetheless, in the next 15 months before metro-mayors are elected, cities will benefit if there is a robust conversation about what the new metro-mayors’ priorities should be.

Greater public engagement will also increase scrutiny, although it is striking that the new metro-mayors are likely to face much greater levels of scrutiny than the Mayor of London currently does. For example, the devolution deal stipulates that the city-region mayor will be required to consult the combined authority cabinet on their strategies and spending plans, which can be rejected if two-thirds of the members do not agree with them. When we compare the new city-region mayor role with global counterparts – such as Bill de Blasio in New York, or Anne Hidalgo in Paris – it’s clear that UK mayors will be significantly less powerful.

We may even find in a few years’ time that, if we are having vigorous debates about making UK cities more successful, the discussion could shift to asking whether UK metro-mayors are powerful enough to be effective. Certainly in the meantime, it’s crucial that national government responds to concerns about public engagement and accountability, but remains resolute in insisting on city-region mayors with ultimate responsibility for the key drivers of economic growth in their area. If UK cities are to catch up with their international peers, we may yet find that city-region mayors have a leading role to play.


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