A milestone for devolution

This week, voters across the UK will participate in devolved and local elections. The political and policy landscapes are very different from 2017 when the first of England’s metro mayoral elections (outside of London) took place. The major parties have new leaders, and the world has been ravaged by a global pandemic. The election will be viewed by many as something of a litmus test to assess how the country’s first elected metro mayors have delivered. But given that England’s local and mayoral elections are taking place alongside elections for the Scottish parliament and Welsh Senedd, the results are also likely to be interpreted in a broader context.

While these elections will serve as a litmus test for the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are also an opportunity for voters to cast their verdict on England’s emerging system of devolution. Alongside the 5,000 or so local council seats, the mayor of London and seven metro mayors - including the newly created office of mayor of West Yorkshire - are up for election.

Since the 2017 mayoral elections, the landscape of English devolution has changed significantly. As the combined authority and metro mayoral model of devolution beds in, mayors are showing the difference they can make. In the Liverpool city region, Steve Rotheram has launched a £30 million digital partnership to expand connectivity across the city and close the digital divide. Elsewhere, mayors are using their name recognition to attract significant investment for the areas they represent. In Tees Valley, Ben Houchen has put his patch on the map by securing funding to develop low carbon energy, as well as carbon capture and storage infrastructure.

It is not just the formal powers that mayors are using to make a difference. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into focus the tensions at the heart of the UK’s overly centralised state. As the UK government attempted to determine how much money local areas should be compensated with for undertaking local lockdowns, local leaders threw down a strong challenge. Greater Manchester’s standoff with government, led by Andy Burnham, represented a watershed moment for English devolution and showed how metro mayors can challenge national government.

Indeed, approximately 62 per cent of the North’s population is now covered by some form of devolution deal, meaning that many people have experienced first-hand the benefits of some form of devolution. However, to date much of the powers available to metro mayors continue have been shaped by individual devolution deals through an asymmetrical, market driven approach.

The forthcoming devolution and local recovery white paper offers an opportunity for greater consistency of approach and a clearer, more transparent framework for allocating and distributing powers to address the current vacuum of approach in England. This could be a crucial moment for creating a more decentralised form of governing that delivers devolution for all places in England. However, the white paper has already been postponed several times in recent years. If, through the white paper, the government decides to stick with its approach of devolving powers through deal making, the powers that mayors have will continue to vary significantly. For the winners this week, a showdown on the future of English devolution may well await if the government’s proposals don’t match their ambitions.

What is at stake

The last twelve months have highlighted the deep divisions across our country, particularly in respect to health and wealth. Previous research by IPPR North has exposed the deep regional divides across a range of economic measures such as productivity, disposable income and employment outcomes, which have been exacerbated by years of austerity, uncertainty and inequality. The pandemic has brought many of these issues to the fore and in some instances – such as the aforementioned Greater Manchester showdown - has given visibility to many of the current metro mayors who have acted as vocal advocates on the national stage for their areas. Voters are therefore not only choosing someone to exercise their formal powers this week, but the kind of advocate they will have over the coming, likely turbulent, few years.

Excluding Greater London, approximately 25 per cent of England’s population (14.1 million) will live in areas governed by metro mayors after these elections. These areas represent 19 per cent of England’s economic output (£319 billion) and equate to more than the economic outputs of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Mayors’ formal powers are limited but important and offer levers which could drive a fair and sustainable economic recovery for places across England. All nine metro mayors have some level of devolved responsibility for adult education, housing, local industrial strategy and, for all but North of Tyne, transport. By working with industry, metro mayors can identify and plug the skills gaps that exist in their regions and can champion training in growth areas such as green technologies. Budgetary responsibilities for transport allow for a more equitable approach to establishing routes across regions, which, alongside housing powers, means that the mayoral authorities are able to strongly influence infrastructure and, in turn, how people live.

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, local leaders will work to address the financial challenges that have worsened over the past year alongside the social and economic fallout of the pandemic. Simultaneously, we face multiple significant challenges like stemming the impacts of climate change, navigating the long-standing implications of Brexit, and solving intergenerational inequality. We need leaders who can comprehend these competing challenges and make decisions that benefit everyone. From their first days in office, local leaders will need to work hard to support a recovery that enables everyone in the North to live a good life and build local democracies that are participative as well as representative.

Beyond the elections, policies for England’s next Mayors

The second cohort of England’s mayors will need to work, from day one, to maintain and increase public confidence, demonstrate that they can create meaningful change, and prove to their electorates that they made the right decision. To do this, they should keep two documents on their desk: the manifesto they were elected on, and the following policies, which are rooted in rigorous IPPR North research.

For economic justice:

  • Deliver good work across the North by developing (if they have not yet done so) and collaborating to seek alignment of their employment charters to produce a recognised Northern Employment Charter.
  • Move forward with bus franchising.

For climate justice:

For social justice:

Of the North, for the North, by the North:

Here in the North, mayors cannot achieve a better life for everyone across our region alone, and over their forthcoming term they should push for – and secure – the powers they need to get on with their jobs. But they are not the only actors needed to play their part. Combined and local authorities, central government, political parties, business, civil society and others must work together towards a shared goal of creating the conditions for better lives.

Pan northern solidarity, which draws together our combined strengths, will be an essential ingredient of a just recovery for the North. Mayors should come together, regardless of party, for the North in order to: