Metro Mayors – Next Steps for Devolution in England

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The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS) hosted their event ‘Metro Mayors: next steps for devolution in England’ last week in the run up to the Mayoral elections which will take place in several major city-regions next month on the 4th May. City-REDI’s Charlotte Hoole was there to join in the debate and here provides a short commentary of the discussion and key points to take away.

The event was an opportunity for academics, policy-makers and private sector representatives with an interest in all things devolution to come together to exchange their hopes and concerns for its next phase which will see many of the major city-regions across England being headed by Metro Mayors come next month. Chaired by the Guardian’s Peter Hetherington who oversaw the discussion, a panel of 5 speakers were invited in turn to present their views on the devolution agenda before opening up the debate to the audience for questions at the end.

Up first was Victoria Bettany from CLES, emphasising the need for a fairer system of local governance in response to the socio-spatial inequalities that exist, as well as the need for the prospective mayors to join forces to act as a strong voice to challenge central government. On a different note however, Tom Walker from DCLG then took to the podium to emphasise the increased power and fiscal autonomy devolution was providing to local areas. Tom also stressed the need to maximise awareness in the run up the elections, as well as for everyone to get behind and support their new mayor once in post to maximise their potential.

Continuing, Professor Andy Pike from CURDS offered his academic insight and critique to proceedings, highlighting the ad hoc and piecemeal fashion in which devolution has so far been rolled out and pointing to a lack of evidence to suggest a direct link between mayors and economic growth. This was closely followed by Naomi Clayton from Centre for Cities who, in representation of an institution who has openly supported a mayoral style of governance for city-regions in England for many years, brought back the focus of devolution as an opportunity to do things differently; identifying this as a process rather than a single event on the path towards change for the better. Naomi also emphasised the necessity for mayors to be making the most of their ‘soft powers’ as well as gaining quick wins to build confidence.

Up last, although certainly not least, Aileen Murphie from the UK National Audit Office brought the panel discussion to a close by drawing on the complexity devolution deals have brought to the overall governance landscape in England, and the need for there to be more clarity with regards to the powers and intentions of metro mayors. To this end, Aileen proposed that there needs to be;

1. More clarity on how much money mayors will have and what they intend to do with it,

2. A formal strategy in place that holds mayors to account,

3. Clear rules which set out who is accountable to whom,

4. The means to gather robust performance and cost data to measure outcomes once mayors are in place.

Following the presentations, other key points were also raised by audience members in relation to a devolution agenda that was too focused on regionally ‘big’ issues at the expense of addressing more localised matters – as well as a general concern for all those places that do not fall within a city-regional boundary and therefore get left out. There were also anxieties being felt around the danger that central government would lose interest in devolution and metro mayors in light of Brexit.

Overall, the range of speakers made for an interesting debate with clear and well-reasoned arguments presented on both sides, and despite the mix of opinion, all recognised that devolution in its current form was the best that regions had on offer and therefore should try to make the most of it. It was also agreed that the structure of devolution is what’s important, and that it is the structure that most local places are happy to buy into (even if electing a Mayor is the pill they’ve had to swallow for it).

Unsurprisingly however, there were many questions that remained unanswered. Metro mayors as a solution to the social and economic problems of our cities and regions is entirely experimental, it’s a gamble, and only time will tell us whether this is the right approach or not. But what the debate last week did tell us is that there are a number of simple steps that can be taken now to ease the process, and these relate to providing more clarity of the role of mayors, making the public more aware that elections are taking place to increase voter turn-out and, once are in post, ensuring we have the appropriate tools in place to assess the impact of mayors right from the start.

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