Going metro


IPPR North, democracy, devolution and localism, local government, regional issues

Author(s):  Ed Cox
Published date:  24 Apr 2012
Source:  IPPR

Ed Cox argues that city mayors should just be the start, and that mayors for metropolitan regions with a wider range of powers would be a greater step towards real devolution of power.


In less than two weeks, electorates in 10 cities around the UK will be voting on whether they want a city mayor with jurisdiction over the core city local authority area. The opinion polls show no clear pattern – in some places there is enthusiasm, in others scepticism or indifference. IPPR North supports the idea of mayors, but when viewed from a northern perspective the idea of ‘metro mayors’ – covering larger metropolitan areas and with a stronger strategic oversight and powers– would be much better than city mayors in some places.

The case for metro mayors

The principle argument for metro-level governance is an economic one. The notion of the ‘functional economic market area’ (FEMA) is now widely understood to be a key component of spatial economic analysis. There is no universal approach to defining a functional economic area as it depends upon both the market concerned and the economic development outcome one is trying to address. But in most cases in England FEMAs do not adhere to administrative boundaries and economic flows. Housing markets, labour markets and industrial and commercial supply chains normally overlap local authority areas. Most of England’s core city local authority areas depend heavily on workers travelling into employment centres from neighbouring authority areas, not least people in professional and managerial roles. The level of economic interdependence between neighbouring local authorities in FEMAs therefore demands a level of collaboration in policy terms in order to support economic growth.

Both London and Manchester have undertaken significant analyses of the spatial patterns of economic development within their respective city-regions. GLA Economics identified clear ‘pillars’ and ‘corridors’ of economic activity in London which informed the mayor’s London Plan and the Manchester Independent Economic Review (MIER) used Greater Manchester as the basis for developing an economic development strategy for the whole city-region.

More recently, the functional economic area has been the basis upon which local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) have been formed. All of the LEPs involve collaboration across local authority boundaries, many adopting city-regional boundaries and structures that were already in place since the previous government’s Sub-National Review of Economic Development and Regeneration.

The policy logic behind FEMAs becomes even clearer when we consider key aspects of economic development. With labour markets transcending local authority boundaries and with an uneven distribution of skills and professions across FEMAs, skills policies are best developed and implemented at the city-regional scale. In turn, commuting and travel patterns criss-cross local authority areas meaning that many local and sub-regional transport networks require cross-boundary collaboration and planning to maximise their economic benefit. Housing market areas also tend to reflect travel-to-work areas, even if they do not match them exactly, so a city-region’s housing offer – and consequently its planning framework – can also benefit significantly from strategic planning on a wider scale. Moreover, industrial and commercial supply chains as well as the markets for key goods and services – from shopping malls to hospitals to concert halls – all typically extend far beyond local authority boundaries and therefore benefit from policy-making across city-regions.

Alongside the economic argument, there is a wider case to be made for metro mayors, including the fact that their wider democratic mandate allows them to undertake cross-boundary advocacy transcending overly parochial concerns and to have a higher profile which gives them a stronger voice with central government, business and other interests.

This amounts to a compelling case for metro mayors, and although at the moment, the government is pushing city mayors, it may not have closed the door on metro mayors as a longer term development. In Unlocking Growth in Cities, central government sets out a ‘menu of bold options’ around which different cities can negotiate ‘city deals’ according to their own needs and concerns. It also holds out the potential of further ‘licensed exceptions to national policy’ for key powers and projects. Such deals will be predicated upon a number of factors including a clear economic rationale and appropriate geography (both of which explicitly acknowledge the importance of the functional economic area) but also ‘appropriate governance and accountability’.

While government falls short of making city or metro mayors a condition for devolution of powers to cities, it does set our four ‘tests’ for the kind of leadership required:

  • A clear mandate to drive and economic programme over the medium term
  • The ability to work across boundaries
  • Visible leadership for business and central government
  • Clarity for responsibility and accountability for actions.

Directly elected mayors are cited as being well placed to meet such tests, but I would argue that city mayors, on their own, will not be enough to attract powers over services which need to be delivered at city-regional level. The government has proposed new freedoms and powers such as consolidation of government funding for capital development, more power to generate funding from local businesses, and greater control of local transport, housing and planning, and employment, skills and welfare programmes. These are fine as far as they go, but I think there is a strong case for more far- reaching powers, exercised at the metro mayor level. These could include significant fiscal devolution, including much greater control over local taxation rates; real power over key strategic functions such as transport, housing, and employment services within the wider city-region; control of a city-wide strategic plan; and the ability to seek the local electorate’s support for changes to voting systems and the voting age.

Mayors with such powers operating across wider areas would amount to a substantial devolution of powers out of Westminster to the regions and take us a long way from the ‘lipstick localism’ on offer at the moment. This means of course, that the journey down this path is likely to take a long time, but it is still I think worth suggesting some models for metro-level governance of this kind.

Models for metro-mayors

Every city-region has its own unique history and culture within which relationships – social, political and economic – have developed and varied over time. These factors are critically important for the prospects and the potential of metro mayors alongside other possibilities for metro-level governance.

Interwoven with history and culture, each city-region can also be characterised by its structure, scale and scope. Various studies have demonstrated how city-regions can be divided into three types:

  • Monocentric city-regions are those dominated by one large urban area or ‘core’. This tends to be the source of high value employment for the surrounding areas and travel-to-work movement within the city-region tends to be towards the core. Manchester and Sheffield would both be considered monocentric but with Manchester’s core ‘pull’ being stronger than that of Sheffield.
  • Bipolar city-regions contain two economic centres rather than one, very often with one having a stronger ‘pull effect’ than the other. Tyne and Wear city-region illustrates this type very well with its centres of Newcastle and Sunderland.
  • Polycentric city-regions contain a spread of cities and towns of different sizes. Highly polycentric city-regions are well connected with significant proportions of the population travelling between economic centres for work. Weaker polycentric city-regions have more self-contained labour markets. Leeds city-region could be considered strongly polycentric in relation to Bradford, Wakefield and Huddersfield, with Liverpool city-region being polycentric although with weaker links with Chester and Warrington.

Given the variations in history, culture, morphology and population distribution between different city-regions, there is an argument that different ‘models’ of metro-level governance which might be more or less appropriate for each. Three are set out here to prompt reflection and discussion:

1. The directly elected metro mayor

Perhaps the ‘purest’ form of metro mayor is one directly elected by the population of the entire city-region. The mayor would normally have some form of wider accountability to an elected ‘assembly’ of some kind made up of local and cross-cutting interests or perhaps a ‘senate’ of local authority leaders.

The London mayor is perhaps the most obvious example of this model. In London’s case, the mayor is held accountable through a 25-member London Assembly, 14 of whom represent particular constituencies and 11 represent the whole capital city.

The advantages of this model lie in its democratic legitimacy and in this respect the model would clearly have advantages for all city-regions. However, it might be particularly beneficial in city-regions where there are lower levels of trust between local authority areas or where economic strength is spread across many areas. This tends to be true in polycentric city-regions such as Leeds and bi-polar city-regions such as Tyne and Wear. In such circumstances the focus of the mayoral role might be on balancing local interests within a wider strategic framework and acting as arbiter where tensions arise between competing economic centres.

2. The delegated leadership model

An alternative to direct election of a metro mayor would be to enable local authorities to delegate ‘executive’ or leadership responsibilities to a particular individual from within a sub-regional body such as a sub-regional leaders’ board or even an LEP. This could be done by mutual agreement or by election. This leader would then be accountable to the body by which they were delegated. Of course, it is possible for such an approach to work without a delegated leader but some of the benefits of a mayoral figurehead could be lost if this were the case.

The typology perhaps seems less important in this case although it is likely that such a situation might best flourish in strongly monocentric city-regions, where there is wide recognition for the core city’s economic role but without perhaps a similar concentration of population, and strongly polycentric city-regions where there is a good level of trust between economic centres. Ultimately, the model would appear particularly suitable for areas with a suitable sub-regional body and good track record for collaborative working. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority might represent a good case in point.

3. The city mayor with wider influence model

Where support for a directly elected metro mayor is limited and the possibility for indirect delegation is constrained, an alternative might be for directly elected city mayor to garner influence and authority for functions that extend beyond the core city boundaries. For example, a city mayor who chairs the LEP, integrated transport authority or police and crime panel could be seen to gather powers beyond his or her immediate mandate. Accountabilities around this model are less clear and will largely depend upon those functions the city mayor is able to garner.

While this might be the least appealing of the three models outlined here, both in terms of accountability and in terms of its potential for drawing down powers from Whitehall, it will work best for mono-centric city-regions where there is a particularly strong core by virtue of its population size, geographical scope or economic vitality.

But however attractive these different models might be, the reform currently on the table is city mayors. So a key issue for advocates of metro mayors is whether and how a city mayoral model where they come into being, might transition to the metro-governance alternative. One way that would be for government to introduce legislation that would impose metro mayors in named and defined city-regions and with a set of basic freedoms and powers which could then be tailored and enhanced as necessary, much as is the case with police commissioners. This would be wrong approach in my view, as at the very least city-regions might expect some form of referendum for a metro mayor, as is the case with city mayors.

Another approach would be an evolutionary one. Assuming they are successful, it is likely that as the profile and scope of city mayors will begin to grow and they might begin to garner powers akin to a metro mayor, as in the third model cited above. Furthermore, the success of city mayors – not least in drawing down powers and freedoms from central government – may in turn encourage city-regions to themselves bring forward proposals for directly elected metro mayors.

However possibly the best means of achieving metro mayors is for central government to provide significant incentives for sub-regional collaboration alongside the need for appropriate accountabilities. The current ‘city deals’ process may well be a first step in this direction but government needs to be clearer about (a) a wider set of powers that might be on offer to any city-region bringing forward sub-regional proposals, and (b) the basis upon which a metro mayor might be established. The local authorities that make up a city-region should be clear in the knowledge that accountable city-regional governance will guarantee them a specific set of powers.

So the referenda on 3 May should just be a start. City mayors offer some scope for greater devolution and enhanced accountability, but they will unable to shape economic development in a way the current crisis needs. Metro mayors – and other forms of sub-regional governance – have much more to offer. Vested with appropriate powers and introduced in a careful and considered manner, metro-level governance represents a vital element in any plan to restore economic vitality and democratic dynamism in English city-regions.

This is an edited version of ‘From city mayors to city-region mayors’ by Ed Cox, which appears in What can elected mayors do for our cities?, published in March 2012 by the Institute for Government.


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Ed Cox, Director, IPPR North