After years in the offing, the election of the first wave of new metro-mayors means this once theoretical tier of governance has now become a group of six actual human beings. Their coming into being has not been without controversy – reflecting as they do the persistent need for central government to create new structures alongside local government before they feel comfortable devolving substantial powers.
But now that they are in place, there exist important opportunities that must be grasped if they are to have impact. The role of mayor, as a single executive leader is often characterised as a “heroic leader” model of leadership given their direct accountability and mandate. But the complex set of challenges and opportunities that face local economies and communities means that the exercise of power will need to be more nuanced. As place-based approaches increasingly develop, which recognise that no single agency can yield all the solutions, collaboration will need to be a key operating principle for mayors to achieve outcomes for their areas.
Firstly, metro-mayors must actively collaborate with local government leaders to secure impact. They will need to develop strong working relationships with their combined authority cabinets, which have varying powers of veto over some decisions through a two thirds majority. For local government leaders, who have their own budgets and statutory duties in addition to their close relationship with their communities, this has the potential of being more effective than arrangements in London. In the capital, the mayor is held to account not by borough leaders but by the London Assembly whose powers are weaker, and who have little formal link or visibility to the constituencies they represent (and over a third AMs have no constituency, having been elected on proportional list).
The combined authority governance arrangements should provide strong checks and balances. Party political differences will clearly determine to what extent this collective can create a common agenda for their place. Yet even where the mayor is the same political colour as the majority of local councils, there is still a risk that some might decide to position themselves against their local councils. This would be highly damaging to the principles of local democracy and governance – and ultimately will undermine the credibility of everyone involved where the case for devolution is so fragile.
One policy area to watch will be health and social care, as oppositionist positions will be an easier habit for mayors to get into where they have no formal governance role. Where complex, sensitive, place-based reform and integration is taking place, mayors will need to resist the temptation to take populist positions against, for example, a particular local hospital closure, if this is part of a wider plan to build up community-based out-of-hospital care which is much needed to shift towards prevention.
Mayors will need to keep in mind that while it might be easy to position themselves against tough decisions to reduce or pare back services faced by cash-strapped councils, the harder, but in the long term potentially more rewarding, position to take will be vis-à-vis central government.
So the second sphere of collaboration for mayors should be with each other, and their counterpart Sadiq Khan in London, to continue to make the case for more powers and budgets to be devolved so that places can better address their own priorities. Working with councils, mayors in each place should make it a priority to gather evidence about where further devolution over for example skills, housing and employment services can have an impact on outcomes. With the risk as we go through Brexit that devolution falls off the “to do” list of the next government, mayors can use their platforms together to make that case robustly. There is an opportunity to ramp up efforts to rebalance English governance away from the institutions of Westminster and Whitehall and closer to the communities who voted last year to “take back control”.
How mayors collaborate with their local government colleagues across the places they represent may depend on the ultimate career ambitions of the individuals involved – are they using the post as a springboard for a future national role or to focus substantively on effecting genuine change in the lives and opportunities of people locally? If the former, then there is a risk the principle of local democracy is undermined by squabbles and one-upmanship which feeds voter alienation. But if it is the latter, there is an opportunity for mayors to exercise effective collaborative leadership with local government that reaps rewards and contributes to shifting meaningful power down closer to people.