Six areas of England elected ‘metro-mayors’ in May 2017 to deliver the ‘devolution deals’ inspired and negotiated by the former Chancellor, George Osborne. These will be joined by the Sheffield City Region (to be elected in May 2018) and ‘North Tyne’ (2019).

What powers do Metro Mayors have?

The ‘metro-mayors’ have taken on a range of statutory powers and budgeted programmes from central government, and as such they will be directly accountable for real decision-making. Their powers include:

  • An annual investment fund;
  • The Apprenticeship Grant for Employers;
  • Local transport funding;
  • The Adult Education Budget (from 2019-20);
  • Council tax precepting;
  • The local Work and Health programme.

In addition, most have direct access to substantial funding distributed to Local Enterprise Partnerships via the Local Growth Fund. Some areas, most notably Greater Manchester, have access to more powers still. Greater Manchester controls waste disposal and fire and rescue, and has a partnership approach to health and social care. This allows it to take decisions with wider significance, such as cancelling the existing waste disposal contract in early 2018. Larger portfolios of powers also produce synergies: Greater Manchester has been able to orientate four funding streams towards a broad programme addressing mental health issues.

Using soft powers

The mayors have also exercised a range of ‘soft powers’. They have explored new directions on complex matters such as homelessness and digital governance. They have lobbied for policy changes: for instance, the mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough successfully proposed taking over the administration of the area’s Local Enterprise Partnership. But spending programmes and legal duties have frequently overshadowed the use of ‘soft power’. Metro-mayors have referred to the distribution of their investment funds as “something tangible from this thing called devolution and this person called the metro mayor”, and stressed the need for “big policies that can make a step change”. Most news stories on their websites emphasise these, downplaying the role of ‘soft power’ and ‘informal governance’ in their policy-making. In November 2017 the mayors held a joint ‘summit’ to press the case for additional powers and funding with the Government.

Government funding for metro-mayoral areas

This last development suggests that metro-mayors see their relationship with the Government as critical to their success. In turn, the Government’s own view of the role and capacity of metro-mayors will inform its own policy approach. In this regard, developments in late 2017 are of interest: they point towards a sharp increase in the number and value of central government funds directed at combined authorities. The November 2017 Budget announced the following lines of funding for metro-mayoral areas:

  • £850m of a new four-year Transforming Cities Fund to be shared between the six areas;
  • £28 million for Housing First pilots in London, Greater Manchester and Liverpool;
  • A £12 million capacity fund for two years for the six metro-mayors;
  • £6 million for a housing delivery taskforce and £5 million for a construction skills training scheme in the West Midlands, as part of its second devolution deal.
  • Minor grants to other bodies in the West Midlands deal include £1.12m to support delivery of energy and low carbon projects across the Midlands, £31m to create testing infrastructure for connected and autonomous vehicle technology, and £800,000 for an Office for Data Analytics.

The capacity for divergence

Will these funds lead to metro-mayors paying more attention to strategic national priorities at the expense of developing local initiatives? It’s too soon to tell.  However, the Government does appear to envisage a harmonised approach between national and local policy. The Industrial Strategy White Paper, published in November 2017, lists a large number of current policies and projects in its chapter on ‘place’. Some of these are led by metro-mayors but some are not: this suggests that the Government sees metro-mayors as preferred local project partners, but not necessarily as the conduit for all local interventions. Local Industrial Strategies will be agreed which are “aligned to the National Industrial Strategy”. Similarly, in the November 2017 Budget, commitments to metro-mayors are interspersed with other funding plans, such as investing in new trains for the Tyne & Wear metro and plans to build one million homes in the Oxford-Cambridge ‘arc’.

The immediate future

In the short term, substantial funds from central government may be the surest route to outcomes for the metro-mayors. The combined authorities are new organisations, and will take time to develop institutional capacity and trust with local partners. The obverse of this is that they will be strongly influenced by central imperatives. This need not be problematic. Different tiers of government can hardly avoid working together. But the long history of British centralism, combined with fuzzy central policy intentions, can breed distrust amongst observers.

On the other hand, it is possible that the ‘devolution deals’ agenda will rediscover its previous dynamism. The Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, indicated in February 2018 that a devolution framework is “almost done”. Negotiations for a devolution deal without a mayor have been reported as progressing in Devon and Somerset. The Government has also shown flexibility in its dealings with the complex situation in Yorkshire, and a proposal for a ‘One Yorkshire’ deal was submitted to the Government on 6 March 2018. This would entail a quite different conception of English devolution, which has so far been based on functional economic geographies. In time this type of change could shift central-local relations in unforeseen directions.

This Insight is based in part on an earlier piece that appeared on the British Academy website in January 2018.

Image credit: Manchester Town Hall by Richard Hopkins: