Our new mayors have wasted no time. They would have been forgiven for taking the weekend off, but there was no time for a hangover. The morning after the election before, Andy Burnham had announced his top team, and Andy Street had met with the Prime Minister. The devolution tremor (it could hardly be called an earthquake) rumbled on.
All six of England’s new mayors will naturally look for some quick wins. We have already seen some of the glamour we’ve come to expect of our-front bench politicians – high-profile photo opportunities and interviews with national media, normally reserved only for our London-based stars.
No doubt, with all this attention, in about three months’ time, people will be asking the mayors “what have you achieved in your 100 days?” – as many did with our London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Absolutely right. IPPR has pushed for mayors for decades, and, since they were first proposed, IPPR North has argued that this model has great potential. These mayors have a mountain to climb; they need to get off to a good start.
But if they only to focus on making a short-term impact they will waste the full potential they have. They only have 3 years – so more like a 1000 days – to make far bigger changes. And if, when they stand in front of the electorate again in 2020, they simply reel off a list of the low-hanging fruit they’ve picked, then many of us will be disappointed – not least the people they could have helped.
These mayors are a big deal – they shouldn’t set their sights so low. Yes, people are right to point out the technical limitations of their powers. As an individual they have little direct power – rightly, given the need for checks and balances in any fair and mature democratic system.
When interviewing people for our recent report, the ‘soft power’ of the position came up a great deal. But it is so important not to mistake ‘soft’ for ‘ineffective’ – or worse, ‘weak’.
‘Soft power’ is the power to convene homelessness charities across a city region, and help rough sleepers directly within days of taking office. And ‘soft power’ becomes ‘hard power’ when it translates into the politics of the combined authorities these mayors will chair. If they can work with their colleagues then billions of pounds can be marshalled to a more effective, collective cause.
A new forum of debate and a new politics has been ignited within our city regions – some of the biggest issues will be within these mayors’ soft and subtle influence and combined authorities’ direct remit – from the quality of the air we breathe, to the pay and progression of the jobs many do.
And if they deliver, this could in time be seen as one of the most profound changes to English governance in decades. For those of us who recognise the UK – or more specifically England – is the most centralised of developed countries, we hope this is the thin end of a powerful wedge.
We hope that more mayors will follow (some are pencilled in for next year). And we hope that this opens up a fresh conversation about how England is governed – a country of 55m people, now ruled almost entirely from Whitehall.
The new mayors have already broadened the debate beyond their own borders – Andy Burnham has supported IPPR North’s ideas for Council of the North and both he and Steve Rotheram have pushed for northern leaders to come together on Brexit.
So yes, it is important to have a short-term impact, and raise the profile of our city regions. It’s exactly what we need. But there’s a much bigger prize to be won. Last week’s tremor has finally opened a crack in our centralised politics. Let’s hope we can now break it wide open.
Luke Raikes is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North. He tweets at @lukeraikes.
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