With gridlock in Westminster a distinct possibility for the next five years, now is the time for local leaders, and in particular the new metro mayors, to step up and spur the next wave of innovation and enterprise that will drive the UK’s economy in the post Brexit world.
The outcome of the general election means that – while, clearly national policymaking will not stop – the minority Conservative government’s ability to do anything beyond Brexit, that is substantive and requires political leadership and consensus, will be severely constrained.
It is likely that, over the next five years, delivering any improvements or change on many of the issues that determine our country’s future prosperity and shared growth – the competitiveness of our businesses; the education of our children; the efficiency of our infrastructure; the availability of affordable housing; the quality of our public spaces; and the skills of our workers – Westminster will be only a junior partner.
This situation presents a unique opportunity for local leaders across the country to step up to the plate and drive our country forward. First amongst equals in the local leadership space should be the new metro mayors, who alongside the mayor of London, should build coalitions that encompass city, suburbs and rural areas and that bridge the political divisions that plague our national politics. In both these respects local leadership, already equipped with the pragmatism and experience of working across physical and political divides, will now be more important than ever before.
Under terrible circumstances over the last few weeks we’ve already had a glimpse of how the leadership dynamics within the country are changing. It was the mayors of Greater Manchester and London – Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan – rather than national politicians that led dignified and uplifting responses to the horrific terrorist attacks. In both cases also celebrating the city way of life and reminding the world that their cities remain open for business.
This prominence of local leadership will only increase, and will be in stark contrast to Westminster politics, as the other new metro mayors find their feet and start to set out their ambitions for their places. They can then work together on common causes, such as making the case that the success of the UK relies on the success of its cities.
And while they may not play a formal role in the Brexit negotiations, they could change the broader political context for these decisions – particularly if the shift to giving jobs, investment and growth are central principles guiding the Brexit negotiations gains real traction. After all, the Leave campaign was in part successful because it tapped into a sense that Westminster and Whitehall was remote and didn’t care about them – and in a highly centralised country this is difficult to argue against. Working as a group, the new metro mayors alongside the London Mayor can help address this sense of remoteness and apathy.
To take advantage of the paralysis at the heart of national politics and to differentiate their pragmatic, action-oriented approach from the partisan approach adopted by many national politicians, the metro mayors need to work with public, private and civic leaders from across political and physical divides. Doing this means different communities within their city regions will be represented as part of a positive agenda for economic growth in a post-Brexit world. Labour metro mayor Andy Burnham appointing Conservative Sean Anstee as his skills and employment lead, and Conservative metro mayor Andy Street appointing Solihull Conservative Leader Bob Sleigh as his deputy, are both important symbolic demonstrations of this approach.
While the details are still being worked out, we can be sure that the Conservative’s deal with the DUP will result in more money being allocated to Northern Ireland for jobs, innovation and infrastructure projects over the next five years. To make sure they don’t miss out, the metro mayors will need to act quickly and with clarity to set out how they intend to use their existing powers and funding to deliver concrete policy that will grow the city region economy in a way that promotes and supports innovation and inclusion. This will not only need to be clear to their residents, but also to those parts of Westminster (and beyond) that still need convincing that the mayoral model is a good one.
Not only that, the mayors will also need to set out what extra powers and funding they require from government, and be ready to call them out when political paralysis or civil servant obfuscation undermines their ability to make the investment and policy decisions to grow their economies.
But while the metro mayors can and should unite to demonstrate that strengthening cities means strengthening the economy, national politicians too need to recognise this role. Hung parliament or not, it is essential that MPs from both parties support the current metro mayors and encourage devolution deals to be brokered in the big cities yet to do so.
MPs of urban constituencies from left and right must recognise how a metro mayor gives an identity and a voice to the places they have been elected to represent. If anything, encouraging leadership in major economic hubs will mean national government can get on with Brexit negotiations, knowing that the biggest cities, with the biggest stake in our economic future, are being taken care of and will speak up when they need to.
Whatever happens in Westminster doesn’t need to stop cities doing what they need to do, and it won’t. The mayors of London, Greater Manchester, West Midlands and others have got it covered, they just need to make sure that national government knows it – and encourages them to keep going.
Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article previously appeared.
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