Jonathan Werran: As recent local elections showed, the mayoral revolution has been a success

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

The injunction to “live local and prosper” is the order of the day in the aftermath of last week’s local and devolved regional elections. Good quality neighbourhoods, vibrant high streets, decent school provision and abundant high-skilled jobs from a prosperous local economy – everything that instils pride in place should be encouraged.

The Government can go so far in stimulating prosperous communities and productive places through all the funding and policy levers available to the central state. But the role of strong local leadership here cannot be underestimated in galvanizing place prosperity.

For evidence we don’t need to look beyond two of the three goals in the hat trick, starting with Tees Valley and Ben Houchen’s truly astonishing 73 per cent vote share to secure beyond all measure the mayoralty he had narrowly won in 2017. Friday’s success was followed up the next day by Andy Street, who nearly won the West Midlands Combined Authority mayoralty on first round preference alone.

On this basis, where you have mayoral figureheads who combine charisma with pragmatism, and with a sufficient war chest for investment, this is a model eminently capable of setting in motion a virtuous cycle of economic and political success. Seen in isolation, this outcome wholly vindicates George Osborne and Rupert Harrison’s coalition-era hatched devolution revolution plan.

As the former chancellor Tweeted leading up to Super Thursday, what is needed next is for more trust to be placed in metro mayors through further meaningful devolution from Whitehall. Ideally what is called for here are substantive powers over investment and fiscal leeway to inject fuel into to the tank of well-exercised convening powers.

In ConHome’s Saturday reaction, Paul Goodman noted how Houchen’s triumph and ability to deliver from Freeports to Whitehall relocation has unlocked four of Teesside’s six parliamentary constituencies. At local level, Street’s readeption of the West Midlands Mayoral Combined Authority was telegraphed by the gaining of Dudley Council, again pointing to the potency of the mayoral model, when well supported, in delivering political dividends.

However, these Conservative successes must be tempered by the twin failures to retain the combined authorities encompassing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England as well as the entrenched position of Labour’s metro mayors. Switching the voting method from supplementary vote to first past the post in future mayoral polls would have made the difference for James Palmer at least.

But any inquest must also consider the future and determine how what is working out so well as bold and pioneering in the West Midlands and North East might translate inside the deep blue wall – where the voting intentions of red urban islands such as Cambridge proved capable of commanding the rural blue seas.

Answers there may come, we hope, in the shape of the Levelling Up White Paper. If the expectation is that we revert to the vision Michael Gove offered up last July in his Ditchley Park lecture, this seemed to be pointing to one of central government rationally dealing with 50 principal players, as the US President does in relations with state governors in the federal system.

It’s very conceivable to see Conservative counties, even those shires which have been against the imposition of an urban mayoral governance model, lining up in principle with this out of party loyalty. Such a move would, by reducing the number of significant players to something manageable, align with Gordon Brown’s suggestion – one backed by Lord Hague – for saving the union by establishing some kind of “permanent forum between the regions and the nations, and the centre of government, which Boris Johnson should chair”.

But in what political economy would any new mayoralties emerge into? Going back to the first formal definition of “Levelling Up”, a term mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, we have: “Levelling up means creating new good jobs, boosting training and growing productivity in places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry – not through a one-size-fits-all approach, but nurturing different types of economic growth and building on the different strengths that different places have.”

Just over four years ago when a formal and interventionist industrial strategy, Localis published a report in which we made the distinction between the “stuck” and the “stifled”. The stuck referred to the places that are still dealing with the fallout of the industrial trauma of the 1980s and the stifled places that are growing quickly but whose growth is hemmed in by their boundaries. We recognised both typologies as of increasing political importance, but the Levelling Up road just taken seems firmly addressed to meeting the needs of the former – and for the latter may be seen as levelling down.

Unfair as it might be, the perception among local leaders in the South East might be that in exchange for financial and political capital being invested north of the Watford Gap, they will be lumbered with the hospital pass of meeting unpopular local housing targets. To obviate this issue, a more spatial strategy for housing might insulate from some of the uproar – but not all.

To what extent pain is inevitable and suffering optional will vary. But as a universal governance model, it’s more than likely that mayoralties would necessarily involve restructuring and reorganisation. Bearing in mind the tensions and rupture between the tiers of local government amid the pandemic response last year, then if the White Paper does come out for it, like Macbeth, ‘’If it were done when tis done, twere well it were done quickly”. If not, not at all.

The evidence shows that when resourced and supported, charistmatic and committed leaders of place like Houchen and Street can lead all before them. For the sake of our recovery, we could do with more of them.

The recent example of Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP, taking on the duty of leadership at Nottinghamshire County Council is an undeniably bold and imaginative coup which bodes well for the authority’s ability to cut through in talks Whitehall. To quote from the catchy campaign song of failed London Mayoral candidate Count Binface, it’s in such terms that you can see it being hip to be a mayor.

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Author: Jonathan Werran


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