Metro mayors have one chance to get this right

by Kevin Meagher

The fashion in political ideas often reflects a particular moment in time.

After a few lonely years at the Treasury, George Osborne realised he was missing a trick in trying to revive Britain’s wheezing economy on a single, Greater London engine.

The former Chancellor’s solution was the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

After rashly scrapping regional development agencies in 2010, he would revive the northern economy with an infusion of powers and money, topped off with elected mayors to give the enterprise some political leadership and direct accountability.

The series of devo deals that he negotiated with Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands are sensible and workmanlike and, given time, will make a major difference to the economic performance of the north and midlands.

But the problem remains in explaining exactly how metro mayors will fit in. What will they actually do?

Launching his campaign to become Labour’s standard-bearer in Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham promised to end the ‘complacency’ of the Manchester music scene, which, he contended, was ‘trading on the big names of the past too much’. (Bursaries for bass players, perhaps?)

Then there was Steve Rotherham, Labour’s candidate in Liverpool, pledging to create a flag for Merseyside.

Clearly, neither had read the small print.

As Manchester’s council leader, Sir Richard Leese, pointed out, when ruling himself out of contention for the new job, these are workhorse roles.

Leese said he would rather be having a pint than find himself ‘selling Manchester to investment funds in some anonymous international hotel’.

Metro mayors won’t find themselves posing next to over-sized charity checks in their gold chains. Neither should they expect a warm reception if they try muscling powerful council leaders out of the way.

Instead, they are tasked with driving forward the laborious and uncertain work of improving the productive economic capacity of their conurbation, negotiating with council leaders, investors, business, Whitehall and a mightily confused general public in the process.

Skills, transport, housing, jobs. Each is vitally important, but not particularly sexy.

What’s more, the mayors’ successes will often take place below the political waterline.

Convincing a delegation of Chinese state officials to invest in a regeneration scheme, or winning over a roomful of sceptical Frankfurt bankers is the name of the game.

The theatre of the Commons chamber will be replaced by the air-conditioned boardroom of an anonymous office block.

Political oratory will give way to endless PowerPoint presentations.

Metro mayors are the very acme of managerial politics, but the problem they have is there is little by way of a ‘retail offer’ to voters.

How will we know if they are doing a good job?

The mayors won’t be running your children’s school, or your grandmother’s care home. Or collecting your rubbish or managing your park.

By 2020, they may have little to show that endears them to voters, or a Conservative Prime Minister who is already sceptical about the value of their roles to begin with.

After all, Theresa May has a few other pressing problems to contend with and must be wondering why creating a bunch of provincial political barons (who are all likely to be Labour) was ever thought to be a good idea by the previous management.

This means the mayors need to hit the ground running, if for no other reason than self-preservation.

But the problem is that producing a spatial planning strategy, or re-engineering the skills mix in their area is not something that gets done in weeks or months.

And even if it is accomplished, so what? Will voters sense a tangible difference?

Here’s the doomsday scenario.

The metro mayors are up again for election in 2020, probably on the same day as the next general election.

They have barely three years to show that they are succeeding in delivering jobs, growth and new homes before they are held to account.

It’s a pretty tall order. Unachievable, even.

Moreover, it’s no secret that council leaders in Greater Manchester, Merseyside the West Midlands and especially in South Yorkshire (where the deal on a mayor still isn’t finalised) feel they are being bounced.

They are already circling their municipal wagons to protect their turf and would dearly love to rein-in the powers of the mayors.

What if Theresa May simply passes the responsibility to them? What if she offers combined authorities the chance to keep their devolution deals sans elected mayors?

As it stands, most areas would willingly kill off the role in a heartbeat. Labour council leaders ending the reign of Labour mayors? A red-on-red assassination.

There is already a debate in government about whether to insist on metro mayors to oversee devo deals – something George Osborne previously insisted on – or whether to take each case on its merits.

The model is already fraying at the edges given a High Court judgment yesterday which upheld Derbyshire County Council’s opposition to the Sheffield City Region including Chesterfield (which is in Derbyshire). It seems to have effectively killed the prospect of electing a mayor in May.

For the first wave of mayors elected next May, theirs will be a tough inheritance, making a series of untested powers stack-up and deliver real, tangible change within three years – with a political gun pointed at their heads the whole time.

If they don’t get this right first time, they will find they are yet another passing political fad.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How It Will Come About,’ published by Biteback

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