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Government / Local politics

How powerful will the UK’s new metro mayors be?

Before Christmas, I attended a meeting at Sheffield council, examining the detail of their city-region Devolution Deal. Although generally positive regarding the prospect of more powers being wielded locally, councillors and residents alike were particularly concerned to know more about the specific powers of the proposed city-region mayor – how they would be elected, for how long, and how, between elections, that figure would be held accountable.

These questions are being asked across combined authorities that have agreed deals so far. And while the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill contains some of the answers, some of the detail will need to be finalised at a local level.

So, what do we know so far? And what does it mean for how effective these new city-region mayors are likely to be?

What powers will UK city-region mayors wield?

City-region mayors will chair their combined authority, and must appoint a fellow member of the combined authority to serve as his or her deputy. Mayoral terms will last four years, and elections will be conducted on a simple majority system, unless there are three or more candidates, in which case the mayor will be returned under the supplementary vote system (where voters issue a first and second preference).

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The Cities Bill essentially grants the power to the communities secretary to stipulate which powers should be taken on by the city-region mayor (as opposed to the combined authority of an area generally, or individual local councils). The agreements that have been struck to date set out that city-region mayors will take responsibility for new powers and budgets relating to transport, housing, planning and policing.

But in part this will be determined by the specific content of the devolution deals agreed with individual city-regions, and the drafting of new constitutions for mayoral combined authorities in 2016. With the permission of the secretary of state, the city-region mayor may also delegate specific responsibilities or functions to individual members of their combined authority too.

“City-region mayors will face far greater levels of scrutiny than the mayor of London currently does”

This mix of powers and delegated functions is particularly important when thinking about how these new arrangements can support economic growth across the city-region. After all, one of the primary benefits of the city-region mayoral model should be the mayor’s ability to effectively prioritise investments, and coordinate policy interventions, across the wider city-region economy.

It is therefore vital that, as deals progress, government remains resolute that new city-region mayors retain ultimate responsibility for the key drivers of economic growth in their area.


What about checks and balances on those powers?

The members of the combined authority will play an important role in scrutinising the city-region mayor, and providing oversight regarding their decisions.

In Greater Manchester, which has progressed furthest in setting out the detail of their devolved governance arrangements, it’s clear that the city-region mayor will be required to consult the combined authority cabinet on their strategies, which may be rejected if two-thirds of the members agree to do so. The combined authority cabinet will also examine the Mayor’s spending plans and will be able to amend their plans, again if two-thirds of the members agree to do so.

Critically, the Greater Manchester Deal states that the “Statutory Spatial Framework” should be approved by a unanimous vote of the combined authority cabinet. Similar proposals have been included in other devolution deals agreed so far.

Clearly there remains more work to be done to finalise how these arrangements will work in practice. But it is apparent that city-region mayors will face far greater levels of scrutiny, and a far greater need to work collaboratively with existing local authority leaders, than (for example) the mayor of London currently does. Indeed, under the proposed arrangements, despite their broader mandate, new city-region mayors will in some senses be acting as “the first among equals” locally, rather than as a “city-region chief executive”.

“Gridlock could ensue between mayors and other combined-authority members”

This may reassure some of those concerned about the creation of all-powerful mayors – but it should also give us pause for thought. One of the primary benefits of the city-region mayoral model should be the ability to take effective decisions for the city-region as a whole. There is a risk that, under current proposals “gridlock” could ensue between city-region mayors and other combined authority members – particularly in areas that are not politically homogenous or where strong working relationships have not been developed over many decades. Checks and balances are of course important, but they must not be implemented in a way which would overly constrain the ability of new city-region mayors to take important strategic decisions for their place.

The importance of powerful city-region mayors

When one thinks about big city mayors, the likes of New York’s de Blasio, Paris’ Hidalgo and London’s Boris spring to mind. But the powers that each of these figures wield differs significantly, with the mayor of London standing out as significantly weaker than his international counterparts. In practice, as things stand, new city-region mayors across the UK could be weaker still.

In part that’s because there remains a dynamic within devolution discussions that mayors are “the price areas have had to pay” in order to access new powers – a phrase I heard several times, not just in Sheffield, but across a range of cities during 2015.

This is understandable, given the “deal” based nature of devolution in the UK. But it is critical that government and local authorities don’t allow this sentiment to be translated into new combined authority constitutions that blunt the effectiveness of the mayoral model itself.

Ben Harrison is director of partnerships at the Centre for Cities.

This is an edited version of an article originally posted on the think tank’s blog
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