1. Governance
May 5, 2017

Five reflections on the metro mayor manifestos

By Simon Jeffrey

In the weeks before the metro mayor elections, the Centre for Cities  pulled together manifestos from the major candidates in all six city regions. Our goal was to examine what they are saying, how their policies address the different economic challenges of each place, and what patterns or messages emerge when considered as a whole.

Here are five observations on the trends and issues emerging from the manifestos across all these places:

Not everyone has bothered to write a manifesto

Metro mayors will be the most visible politician in their area overnight, with mandates many times larger than MPs in their city regions and a significant profile on the national stage. But despite the size of the role and the powers at their disposal, a worrying number of candidates have not set out what voters can expect them to do with those powers if elected.

For example, only two Conservative candidates have published manifestos – Andy Street, who was in a titanic battle in the West Midlands with his Labour opponent Sion Simon, and Sean Anstee who has had a long run-up to his contest with Labour’s Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. Elsewhere, candidates have only set out short lists of policy priorities or very general aspirations without clear and measurable targets or dates have been made to do.

Manifestos can be a hindrance to politicians once in office (see the national insurance U-turn from this year’s budget for the most recent example) and are largely unnoticed by the voting public. But if they are also an indication of the level of thought and preparation candidates have put into their vision for their city region, then this is not an encouraging start.

Mayoral hopefuls are showing ambition in going beyond the formal powers in their devolution deals

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A number of candidates are already demonstrating a willingness to look beyond the powers set out in the devolution documents, which will be important if they are to take bold and decisive action if elected.

In the West Midlands, Sion Simon would nationalise the M6 toll, arguing that, while it’s not within his formal powers, central government could not refuse a policy set out explicitly in his manifesto and voted for by local residents. Andy Burnham has also vowed to set up a Greater Manchester Schools Commissioner to drive up standards in schools.

These candidates can be said to be following the precedent set by London’s mayors – with Ken Livingstone, for example, having successfully implemented the congestion charge without having been designated any authority to do so in the Greater London Authority Act.

Candidates are also showing a welcome recognition of the informal but crucial role the mayors will play as ambassador, cheerleader and negotiator-in-chief for their city region. Judging by the manifestos, Government ministers should prepare themselves for plenty of lobbying on HS3 and education from northern mayors, pilot schemes for Universal Basic Income in the West Midlands, and reforms to school league tables in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

But there is still a strong emphasis on skills, transport and housing in the manifestos that have been published – regardless of candidates’ political affiliations

While some policies and aspirations tread on territory that will be fiercely defended by constituent councils and national government, in the main the manifestos have engaged with the three big economic policy areas that mayors will have the greatest authority over: skills, transport and housing/planning.

While there are clear differences in the proposals set out by leading candidates in each city region, they also share significant overlaps. In particular, there aren’t clear party-political distinctions between, for example, the Labour or Conservative candidates in each place, in their approaches to the big policy challenges in each place – echoing Ed Glaeser’s observation from the US that there doesn’t seem to be a left or right wing way to take out the trash.

Tough decisions are still being dodged

Taking decisions at the city region level should reduce some of the NIMBYism and parochialism that can thwart large-scale plans with widespread benefits. Unfortunately, however, like Sadiq Khan’s promise to protect the greenbelt (and thereby limit the already constrained space to address the capital’s housing shortages), many mayoral candidates are so far prioritising short-term political gains over long-term benefits to their city region.

In Greater Manchester, for example, Andy Burnham and Jane Brophy have promised to scrap the hard work done by local leaders on the city region’s spatial framework, which has attracted some opposition locally because of its plans to develop green belt land.

And in the West of England, candidates have committed to build more homes, but have not said where this housing would be built – which could lead to three more years of inadequate action on this problem.

Evaluation should be at the heart of all the candidates’ policy plans

One of the biggest opportunities of the mayoral agenda is the chance it will offer for greater evidence-based policy experimentation and innovation. But without a clear programme of evaluation built into policy plans from the outset (and followed through whatever difficult implications they may bring), those potential benefits will be lost.

This issue was recognised in the Greater Manchester devolution deal, which has evaluation at its centre. However, none of the mayoral candidates in other places have indicated that they would embrace this aspect of policy-making.

This might seem like a wonkish concern, but failing to evaluate properly could result in money being wasted and citizens being ill-serviced by bad policies. It will also mean that mayors and other decision-makers cannot learn from the successes and failures of different cities when addressing their own challenges.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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