Commentators struggled to separate the mayoral elections on 4th May, in six new city-regions across England, from the general election that will follow a month later. We heard more about what surprise Conservative wins in the West Midlands and Tees Valley mean for Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May than for local residents in Birmingham and Darlington.
Yet those new mayors Andy Street and Ben Houchen—as well as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool, Tim Bowles in the West of England and James Palmer in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough—will represent nearly 10m people between them. They have an opportunity to develop the way that cities and regions are led. They can also, a new report by my think tank suggests, bring fresh impetus to the debate on integration.
New champions of integration are much needed. Britain is a more anxious and fragmented society than any of us would want. The EU referendum vote split the country by place, by generation and by social class, casting new light on more long-standing divisions. Britain’s multi-ethnic, multi-faith society is in many places an integration success story but it faces challenges and tensions too, including concerns about segregation, extremism and prejudice.
Voters think it is important to get integration right. It is in all our interests that people from different backgrounds should be able to live well together. Progress has been restricted by a lack of leadership from the top of politics but the new mayors are ideally placed to take the lead—showing national government that it can be done and done well, with the support of local residents of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.
Integration happens, after all, at local level in the places where we live, work, study and meet. Integration challenges and priorities will differ significantly between the West Midlands and the Tees Valley, between Greater Manchester and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough. But there is no city-region where the mayor could not make a significant difference to how people live together through a bespoke integration strategy for their own area.