The first elections for six elected mayors of combined authorities (known as ‘metro-mayors’) took place on 4 May 2017. They were held under the Supplementary Vote system.

The Conservatives won four of the contests and Labour won two. The mayoral election for the Sheffield city region has been postponed to May 2018.

Devolution deals

This is the latest stage in the policy of ‘devolution deals’, launched by the former Chancellor George Osborne in November 2014 with the ‘Greater Manchester Agreement’. Since then, deals have been struck with eight further areas and all but those in West Yorkshire and Cornwall include elected mayors.

The mix of devolved functions varies. Most combined areas will play a role in spatial planning; transport; business support; the Work and Health Programme; further education; and economic development. Greater Manchester’s deal is the strongest. There, the mayor will also control the police and fire authority and a housing investment fund, and will have influence over new joint arrangements for health and social care.

What will the new mayors do?

The mayors will not have the kind of broad powers available to the Mayor of London. Each will chair their combined authority and will appoint council leaders to their ‘cabinet’. In Tees Valley and the West Midlands, the mayor will face ‘cohabitation’, with most of the combined authority members coming from a different party from their own. In practice, all of the mayors will have to garner consensus to deliver tangible outcomes.

Some of the proposed approaches in the winners’ manifestos include:

  • High-profile infrastructure investment, supported by the Government. Each area will receive an annual investment grant, ranging from £15 million in Tees Valley to £36.5 million in the West Midlands, along with other sources of funding for transport and economic growth. Proposals include building new light rail lines, taking over and maintaining railway stations, and airport expansion.
  • Small-scale improvements to existing programmes such as making access to housing easier for young people; ensuring building takes place on brownfield land; and promoting social enterprise.
  • ‘Place-shaping’: bringing together local actors including commitments to increase housebuilding; proposals to promote the living wage; and improving careers advice.

Early indications are that the mayors’ budgets will range from the high tens to the low hundreds of millions each year.

Average turnout in the mayoral elections was 27%, on the low side by local government standards. Research indicates low levels of awareness of the mayors. Given this, they may seek to prioritise public engagement and awareness.

Highest turnout recorded in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, lowest in Tees Valley

What changes will the general public see?

The impact of metro-mayors is not likely to be felt for a number of years. Their impact will depend on how far they can demonstrate results and lodge themselves in the public mind through being visible. They are potentially valuable allies for any government wishing to pursue the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine initiatives, or for the delivery of an industrial strategy. And they will have real powers to affect local economies. However, they may also wish to stand up to the Government – or rival parties locally – to deliver their own manifesto commitments. To achieve tangible outcomes, both sides will need to develop the capacity for routine joint working on an ongoing basis – something which neither is accustomed to.

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.

Image: Manchester Town Hall by Richard Hopkins; Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Supplementary Vote

The charts show the share of first preference votes cast for each candidate. If no candidate wins more than 50% of first preferences, all but the top two candidates are eliminated. The second preference votes of the eliminated candidates are then redistributed to the top two candidates. The candidate with the most votes after this process is the winner.

Brexit effects

Brexit is unlikely to have a dramatic effect on the devolution deals, although EU structural funds destined for the new devolved bodies will cease after exit. The previous Government guaranteed funding for projects agreed before then.

The extent to which powers returning from the EU to the UK would, or should, be passed to local and devolved governments has been debated. The Secretary of State for communities and local government, Greg Clark, said in July 2016 that he had argued successfully for local government to be “part of the negotiations on the terms of our exit” from the EU.