This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (11.05.20).

2021 promises to be a significant year in the development of devolution in England. Is the coronavirus likely to setback those developments? Could Covid-19 provide the impetus to for a more systematic approach to devolution of power to metro-mayors within England?

This Insight will explain why 2021 was expected to be such a key date in English devolution and it will examine the potential impact of the coronavirus on that process.  

2021: A year of change? 

Eight out of ten devolved mayoralties will face elections in 2021. The Local Growth Fund will come to an end and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is likely to be established. Mayors’ investment funds will face their first five-yearly gateway review. The future of industrial strategies and Local Enterprise Partnerships, and the shape of the current Government’s “levelling up” policy (foreshadowed to some extent in the 2020 Budget), should become clearer.  

Whether these timetables and decision points do converge in 2021 now depends upon the UK’s management of the coronavirus pandemic. The shape of the economy, on which these policies depend, is unlikely to return to normal for some time, and there may be a window for new approaches to implementing policy. 

Equally, managing the response to coronavirus may absorb a large quantity of government attention. Some commentators have suggested that greater decentralisation of power could assist the UK government in that task. 

Devolution in England 

What, therefore, is the prognosis for metro-mayors? A feature of English devolution policy since its inception in 2014 has been a scattergun range of initiatives (combined authorities, industrial strategies, growth deals, housing deals). This reflects political priorities. 

During David Cameron’s premiership the Government was active in devolving power to metro-mayors. They featured far less regularly during Theresa May’s term of office. The latter period featured Government interventions at a number of different geographical scales.

These range from the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, to (sub-regional) combined authorities and mayors, to the multi-billion pound Towns Fund and the Future High Streets Fund.  

Numerous commentators (IPPR NorthUK2070 CommissionLocalis) have published proposals to harmonise and deepen English devolution during the last 12 months. The starting-point faced by the mayors is challenging, however. They have considerable powers but few duties. Their powers are mostly concurrent (held also by other public bodies); and many of their powers have no funds attached.

This means that whilst mayors may do many things, in practice they can afford to do relatively few. Building up sustainable organisational capacity has proved a major challenge.  

Demands for more powers 

Almost since their inception, new powers have been proposed for metro-mayors, emanating from think-tanks and the local government sector. These include: 

Demands for more powers play into the traditional narrative of a hyper-centralised UK, and are often part of a wider narrative around ‘rebalancing’ or ‘levelling up’. These demands have also begun to extend into less familiar areas: for instance, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan made a high-profile declaration that his (abortive) 2020 re-election campaign would become “a referendum on rent controls.”  

Public awareness of metro-mayors 

Metro-mayors have some way to go to boost public awareness of their role. A Centre for Cities survey in early 2020 showed high public awareness of the existence of mayors: but lower awareness of who they were, with the exceptions of Andy Burnham in Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London. 

In Liverpool, many respondents, perhaps unsurprisingly, confused Steve Rotheram (Mayor of Liverpool City Region) with Joe Anderson (Mayor of Liverpool City Council). Turnout figures in next year’s elections will provide further evidence as to whether the mayors have begun to establish themselves in the public’s consciousness. 

Future policy 

The Government has committed to publishing a white paper on English devolution during 2020. Many stakeholders will seek to influence this and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee is also running an ongoing inquiry on the progress of devolution in England.  

The interaction of local and central government during the response to the coronavirus pandemic may end up as a strong influence on future policy. This could, in turn, lead to a greater opportunity for a shift in central-local relations than has existed in the UK for some time.  

Further Reading 

Devolution to Local Government in EnglandHouse of Commons Library 

How might English metro-mayors adapt to the post-coronavirus world? Bennett Institute for Public Policy 

About the author: Mark Sandford is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in local government. 

Photo by Kelly Robinson on Unsplash