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Civic leadership and mayors

‘Metro mayors’ will only have more formal powers by 2040 if they maximise their soft power to effect change

Civic leadership and mayors

Some argue that the city-wide ‘metro mayors’ elected in 2017 and 2018 have ‘already changed the landscape of British politics’. Certainly Andy Burnham, Manchester’s mayor, has been vocal in his criticism of what he sees as a London bias in policy making, in particular on infrastructure. And in the Birmingham city-region, Andy Street produced a very detailed manifesto covering everything from protecting architectural heritage to improving parking at Tile Hill and the West Midlands gave him the job of implementing it.

110_Civic leadership and mayors_pullquote_270x93Are these metro mayors actually the right answer? Looking at London’s experience, which is now almost 20 years old, it seems that the concept of a strategic public authority led by a single politician on a very wide franchise can deliver results. 1.3 million people voted for Sadiq Khan, the biggest personal mandate ever afforded to a British politician. The ‘soft power’ which this confers upon him is substantial. Burnham, too, has understood the power of the political mandate, including by making homelessness a flagship policy despite not having any formal powers to influence it.

This kind of soft power has, over time, also enabled the London mayors to argue for additional powers. This evolution has its critics – especially those who feel that the mayor has used his power to reach beyond his strategic remit into micro-management of local affairs, such as individual club licensing or the detail of infrastructure planning decisions.

But, in any case, the major achievements of the London mayors are probably best described as strategic ones, particularly on transport. Among the highlights must be delivering Crossrail (and introducing a cross-London development levy and business rates supplement to help pay for it), creating integrated ticketing, and taking over poorly-performing suburban rail lines and converting these into the Overground.

In theory, collaborative decision-making between local authorities and infrastructure operators could have delivered the same result. And critics of the mayoral model see it as unsuitable for some areas. However, the ability of a city-wide mayor to make trade-offs across a very large area, allocating resources strategically to big game-changing projects, is arguably difficult to replicate by committee. Mayoral soft power, and the political capital which comes with it, allows the big city mayor to make these trade-offs without them being fatal to his (always his, so far) electoral prospects.

Figure 1: Powers of the new ‘metro mayors’ outside London

110_Metro mayors_figure 01_Graphic_746x783

Source: Centre for Cities

It seems likely that the position of London mayor will still exist in twenty years’ time. But the fate of the other newer mayors is more difficult to judge. It will depend, crucially, on the ability of the mayors to command a broad base of political support and focus on key strategic interventions using their soft power. If they do, they can expect to have the clout necessary to argue for increasing powers and money beyond those shown in Figure 1 – including the property tax raising powers available in London.

We’d expect the eight UK city-regions with ‘metro mayors’ to acquire these powers at very different speeds, in proportion to the incumbents’ skill. But by 2040 it seems likely that at least some cities will have bigger, more powerful, metro mayors.

As we argue elsewhere, we’re more doubtful about whether there will be metro mayors in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland in 2040. The existing powers relate only to England and Wales, and in Scotland the focus for now has been on devolution from London to Edinburgh. Indeed, it’s been argued that devolution to Edinburgh has caused city powers to be ‘sucked up to the centre’, leaving cities with fewer powers. It might be that the Scottish Government is in ‘wait and see’ mode while the mayoral experiment south of the border plays out.


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