Mayors are not a panacea for local government

The proliferation of elected mayors has more to do with central government getting its way than providing meaningful powers for local areas

July 13, 2022
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The Tootal Building in Manchester, headquarters of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Image: Jackie Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo

Andy Burnham’s outrage when he appeared to learn by text that Greater Manchester wouldn’t receive the same Covid-19 support as London gave England’s directly elected mayors a new profile. Burnham is better known for being mayor of Greater Manchester than he ever was as a Labour Cabinet minister. Steve Rotherham in Liverpool, Andy Street in the West Midlands, Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, Tracey Brabin in West Yorkshire and others have carved out distinct profiles. Though Boris Johnson delivered little that matched the challenge of “levelling up,” driving the mayoral model into England’s counties and smaller cities was central to the levelling up white paper published this February.

The conservative Onward and non-partisan Institute for Government (IfG) think tanks have published broadly similar proposals to increase mayoral powers. With a foreword by the now-defenestrated Michael Gove, Onward’s call for a “mayoral moment” is endorsed by Andy Haldane, George Osborne, Jim O’Neill, Michael Heseltine and—despite being explicitly aimed at improving the Tories’ electoral performance—by Burnham and six other Labour mayors. Levelling up has barely been mentioned by the tax-cutting candidates for Tory Party leader and it remains to be seen whether any of them will mention mayors at all. Nonetheless mayors have been flavour of the month, and it would take a sharp change of direction for that to no longer be the case. But the next prime minister should ask whether the case for more mayors is as strong as is claimed.

Onward states that England is one of the most centralised nations in Europe, raising only 5.1 per cent of tax at local level, compared with 13.5 per cent in France and 32.2 per cent in Germany. Local authority finances were devastated by a 37 per cent real-terms cut in central government grants between 2009–2010 and 2019–2020. To get additional funding, councils must bid competitively for money from myriad disjointed central government pots. Onward and the IfG want localities to have more coherent, reliable and long-term funding, as well as more wide-ranging powers and sources of income. Many in English local government would agree but, crucially, both Whitehall and the think tanks argue that only Mayoral Combined Authorities with directly elected mayors should benefit.

If levelling up is important, why should it exclude areas without mayors? Evidence that “mayors have begun to address many of the problems holding back their regions” on issues like transport and skills (Onward) or that “the existence of metro mayors has brought demonstrable benefits to their regions and to the overall governance of the country” (IfG) is thin and anecdotal. There are instances where mayors have, in Onward’s language, demonstrated “delivery,” “innovation” and “soft power,” but whatever achievements mayors can claim, these are often entirely dependent on the money they have received from central government (over 90 per cent of the Tees Valley mayoral budget comes from a central government grant). Mayors have transport and adult education powers that have been denied to other areas.  

Elected mayors have a higher profile than most council leaders and provide a recognisable regional voice. According to Onward, their “convening power” has brought new partnerships to life. They have gained money and power for their areas. These are good arguments for mayors, but not for denying money and power to other places. Would existing local or combined authorities not make equally good use of the funding and powers that are restricted to mayors? These reports provide no evidence against this: in fact “the performance of mayors has been variable,” according to the IfG. Members of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority have recently gone so far as to seek powers to remove their mayor, in the event he does not resign willingly following a conduct probe. Polling published in 2021 by data strategy company Stack Data showed twice as much support for greater devolution to existing counties and unitary authorities as to new elected mayors.

Directly elected mayors only exist because central government wants them to and has made them the only way for local areas to gain new money. According to the IfG, government wants a “single point of accountability… a single person with whom ministers can negotiate… and push through difficult decisions… on infrastructure and planning.” For Onward, mayors are “the only model that can give the necessary level of confidence to the government, and in particular the Treasury, to accelerate devolution.” To this end, both think tanks propose shifting powers from local councils to the mayors over planning, local taxation and other services. Whitehall has always wanted regional structures with sufficient local legitimacy to ease the implementation of its central priorities; it clearly sees mayors as a new route to the same end. 

Whitehall’s aims for regional economic development are based on improving transport, infrastructure and skills, while encouraging innovation and property investment. Undoubtedly these things are important, but alone they are not sufficient to create jobs or revive high streets and rebuild communities in peripheral towns, because having good access to prosperous city centres is not enough. Growth does not automatically trickle down to the most disadvantaged—nor does it automatically raise incomes and job security for those working in the everyday economies of care, hospitality and retail. Some of the key levelling-up missions from the government’s white paper, relating to school standards, life expectancy, pay gaps, wellbeing or pride-in-place, will need local councils to have the power to shape communities, as well as new devolved levers that can give them real influence over education and health. Such powers were notably missing from the Johnson government agenda but should be addressed by the next.

If current policies are pursued, much of England will be dragged reluctantly down the mayoral route or miss out entirely. If government did embrace the most radical proposals—passing on one pence in every pound of income tax, or £6bn a year (Onward)—mayoral power would be greatly enhanced, but it’s far more likely that councils will have to pass powers to mayors who are then kept on a tight financial leash. We only need to read what various interviewees working in or with local government told the IfG about the attitude of current Whitehall departments: DfE “doesn’t buy in”; DWP represents the “dead hand of government”; BEIS seems “pretty bad on the whole”; DCMS shows “poor internal joining up”; DfT “just delays decisions”; the Treasury is “too interventionist, too centralising.” That didn’t sound like a central government preparing for a genuine mayoral moment. We must wait to see if the next incumbent in No 10 has any plans to shake things up.