Are northern metro-mayors making the most of their new powers?

Monday, 29th January 2018

2017 saw the election of new metro-mayors in the devolved combined authorities in Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region and the Tees Valley and each of them have had varying success which can be linked to the powers they do, or in some cases, do not have.

The most prominent of all the metro-mayors is Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is widely seen as the forerunner for city-wide devolution deals and its mayor has the widest remit of power compared to the others. With the power to control a mammoth budget which will include the region’s £6bn integrated health and social care budget; the £30m a year housing investment; the consolidated transport budget; a skills budget; and the police, Burnham should be one of the most powerful politicians in the country. However, this power is diluted by the structure of the GMCA which means that the mayor is only one vote out of eleven – the others being the leaders of the ten local authorities of Greater Manchester. On health and social care, the mayor is only one of over forty members who will have a say on what happens to the budget.

Burnham’s time as mayor has seen criticism from some quarters on issues around his approach to homelessness, rough sleeping and planning policy in the city centre, which have led to clashes with the leadership of Manchester City Council. However, he was widely praised for his leadership and handling of the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena in May. Indeed, it is as the figurehead of the region that he has been able to drive forward his wider agenda for improvements to transport and social justice using the ‘soft power’ he has as mayor rather than any direct power he has from the devolution deal.

In the Liverpool City Region (LCR), Steve Rotheram has obtained a more limited set of powers from devolution than his neighbours along the M62. The LCR doesn’t have either the health and social care budget or the police, but they do have the consolidated transport budget, strategy over planning, and skills like GMCA.

Astonishingly, Rotheram’s biggest difficulty on becoming mayor was the LCR’s lack of preparation in setting up his new office. Whilst Andy Burnham walked into his new offices on Oxford Street with 250 members of staff, Rotheram had an empty room without a telephone line or even an email address. This meant he had zero capacity to start using his power or delivering his agenda, and instead spent the first few months putting together a workable office operation. As a result, Rotheram’s launch of his main pledges as mayor ended up being held in November, a good six months after his election.

Of the three northern metro-mayors, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has by far the least power with only transport, adult skills and the limited ability to set up Mayoral Development Corporations Operating within the limited scope of powers that he has at his disposal, Houchen has focused on business and skills in Teesside and is making waves in Westminster with his ideas. As a Conservative politician it is far easier for him to approach Government Ministers with requests than the Labour mayors of the north, allowing him to rack up a series of wins for the young mayor including securing additional funding for remediation works and new road schemes as well as establishing a landmark £200m deal with the Teesside Pension Fund to invest in local priorities. His confidence has grown further in recent weeks with the request being made to Government to pilot a free port in Teesside after Brexit with the backing of over 50 local business leaders, ambitious plans for new transport infrastructure investment and a second devolution deal with Government earmarked for this year.

Each of the northern mayors have their own challenges in 2018, and part of that is inevitably tied to the powers they do, or do not, hold as part of their respective devolution deals. Although each of them have their own deals from Government, the power of the mayor of a combined authority sits with their ability to make the most of the hand they have been dealt, despite its limitations.