1. Governance
September 6, 2016

What do England's big city regions think of the metro mayor position?

By Edward Clarke

Over the past six weeks, the Centre for Cities has held public events in five of the biggest cities in the city regions due to elect their first metro mayors in May 2017: Tees ValleyLiverpool City RegionGreater ManchesterSheffield City Region and the West Midlands.

The events brought together key figures from politics, businesses and universities to discuss with the public what the priorities for each city region should be, drawing on our recent polling of local public opinion. While the conversation was varied and particular to each place, there were three overall reflections that stood out on the metro mayor debate at the local level.

Firstly, the nature of the debate seemed to reflect the progress of each devolution deal.

In Manchester – whose devolution deal has arguably progressed furthest – the debate was focused on what the first Greater Manchester mayor should be prioritising for the city and how they can argue for further powers when in position.

In Liverpool and Tees Valley, however, the debate was about how to ensure the model was right for the area. For example: how will the mayor work for the whole of the city region and reconcile competitive local authority tensions?

In Sheffield and Birmingham, there was more scepticism about the concept of the mayor itself, with attendees questioning whether it suited their city region’s economic and political geographies. In the run up to the elections next year, candidates will need not only to sell voters their vision of the city region but also sell the role itself by engaging with constituents and setting out what could be achieved.

Secondly, there was debate about whether the devolution deals either give mayors too much or too little power.

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At all our events there were questions about how far the powers of the directly elected mayors should stretch. Would there be too much power bestowed on a single executive? Or too little to make a difference?

Our polling showed that, in general, the public support giving directly elected mayors who will be accountable to the whole city region more powers than local council leaders. But it is clear that a transparent method of scrutiny would help mitigate fears an individual will have too much power.

As the development of London’s mayor and Greater Manchester’s devolution deal – the latter already in its fourth version – have shown, the mayor’s remit is a set of evolving arrangements in which momentum, visibility and credibility will be central to securing more devolved powers. Therefore the new mayors will need to fully use the formal powers already available, as well as the informal political capital created by a city region-wide mandate.

By displaying competence and capacity to make things happen, combined with the mandate provided by city region-wide elections, mayors will be in a position to make the case for more powers and devolution. But for now, candidates must convince their electorate they can make changes with the powers already available.

Thirdly, the role of the first mayor is not only to use their powers but also build institutional capacity and profile for the position.

In each of the cities we visited the 2017 directly elected mayor will be the city region’s first. They will therefore need to demonstrate the value of the position to the public.

In Sheffield, panellists called for the mayor to match an overall long term vision with a few visible, early wins. This was also a theme in Birmingham, where the first West Midlands mayor was called on to bid for the Commonwealth games to show “what the mayor can do as salesman for the city”. This was as much to build the profile of the position and the city as for the event itself.

In the Tees Valley there was enthusiasm for the first mayor to raise the profile of the position and create capacity to support it. This would mean forming a strong institution within the organisation, making use of existing powers and building staff capacity. It would also mean forging links and relationships outside of city hall, with local partners (businesses, councillors, charities and the public) and Whitehall officials, enabling the mayor to leverage further powers and financing for the city’s priorities.

While public awareness about directly elected mayors is surprisingly high, there is more to be done, and engaging the public over the next year will be crucial. Mayoral candidates need to be raising awareness of the role, its strategic powers, and the practical decisions that will now be made at the city region level.

The emerging candidates in each city region will therefore need to communicate a clear, ambitious vision and credible targets for the city region – in order to succeed not only in the elections, but when they get to City Hall.

Edward Clarke is an analyst at the Centre for Cities.

This article originally appeared on the think tank’s blog.

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