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Around the Metro Mayors in 100 days

Around the Metro Mayors in 100 days

🕔23.Aug 2017

Better, it’s said, to be criticised than ignored – even when, as here, it leads to one having to apologise, writes Chris Game. 

My recent blog on the salaries of Combined Authority mayors showed that, when the six Combined Authority mayoral salaries are divided amongst their respective populations, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street costs us each under 3p a year, which is less than the comparable figure for the other five.

The arithmetic’s sound, but unfortunately I entitled the blog: “It’s official – the West Midlands has the cheapo mayor”.

I should have chosen something like ‘best value for money’ – instead of an intendedly more eye-catching term that someone subsequently kindly informed me Collins English Dictionary defines as “something very cheap and possibly shoddy”.

I’m aware of no respect in which Mayor Street fits or warrants the description “possibly shoddy”, so I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused or thought to have been intended.

Unfortunately, the grovelling doesn’t end there. I should have recorded, since I was detailing actual figures, that Andy Burnham’s first public act as Greater Manchester mayor was to launch a fund to tackle homelessness, pledge 15% of his own salary towards it, and encourage others to follow his lead, which some evidently have.

As it happens, his £110,000 salary is the highest among the six metro mayors, and, even after the 15% donation, easily remains so at £93,500. Arithmetically, rounded to the nearest whole penny, the salary per head of population drops from 4p to 3p, but taken to one decimal place it’s still significantly higher at 3.4p than Andy Street’s 2.8p.

To confirm, then, our man’s definitely not cheapo, but is still the cheapest – sorry, best VFM.

The salary figures for both CA mayors and chief executives came from the extensive review of the mayors’ first 100 days undertaken over the past fortnight by the Local Government Chronicle team of journalists, and the following table brings together some more of their findings plus some additions from me.

It’s worth emphasising, as the LGC team themselves acknowledge, how arbitrary this 100 days business is. Good politics for the guy who coined the now cliché: US President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, who, already New York Governor, was campaigning for about the most powerful executive office in the world on the measures required to deal with the Great Depression.

But tough for, say, Tees Valley Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen – five opposition years as a Stockton-on-Tees councillor, and expecting, probably up to election day, to continue running his sporting goods business, rather than a Combined Authority comprising entirely Labour-run councils; or Tim Bowles, similarly a backbench councillor in South Gloucestershire, before heading a West of England Combined Authority with even less certainty about its identity than the West Midlands.

Irrerspective of personal experience, though, it’s simply unrealistic to expect in barely three months a substantial record of policy achievement – in a completely new office, with a skeletal organisation, in which personally the incumbent can’t, Trumplike, sign daily executive orders, or indeed actually DO a great deal.

Still, the media now demand the 100-day judgements, whatever the office, and here they do usefully focus some attention on this new and potentially vital bit of our governance that, not helped by Brexit and the General Election, has so far received precious little.

And one thing these mayors can, and can be expected to, do is to staff that skeletal organisation by making appointments.

In the West Midlands it’s been noted that we still have no strategic director of housing and regeneration, or director of skills and productivity – arguably the two key areas of mayoral responsibility.

But, bearing in mind too that the WMCA was by at least a couple of months the last to be formally founded, there is a sizeable staff in place, albeit substantially from Centro.

And, most importantly, we will from September have a highly regarded (yes, that is a ‘g’, not a ‘w’) Chief Executive in Deborah Cadman, which is more than can be said of the West of England and what at least should be the politically more homogeneous Liverpool City Region.

In their very different ways, both cases are concerning. In the West of England, it seems they’re simply slow to emerge from – or possibly even get into – what Mayor Bowles terms ‘start-up mode’.

It’s easy to question the real-world value of some of the other measures in the table – the ministerial hobnobbing, press releases and the like – but to be eating the dust on everything, and still apparently unclear on even the Authority’s eventual organisational size, doesn’t look good.

On Merseyside, by contrast, differing viewpoints are all too openly aired. First, there’s the evidently ongoing power struggle between Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and metro mayor Steve Rotheram, dating back at least to the latter’s victory over the former in the battle for the metro candidacy. Then there’s the inter-borough stuff.

Suppose, say, a Walsall, Dudley or Wolverhampton councillor suggested publicly that W, D or W “is not part of Birmingham, and we are not Brummies – the whole thing is set up to help the cities. The councils who align with Birmingham can control things. The whole concept is flawed.”

Some may well think it, especially when the ‘concept’ is Birmingham’s city-focused 2022 Commonwealth Games bid. But although Liverpool, of course, is the rival Games bidder, the concept upsetting the councillor here was the Combined Authority itself, and in St Helens – substituting Liverpool for ‘Birmingham’ and Scousers for ‘Brummies’ – they voice their dissent openly and bitterly.

George Osborne – and no doubt Mayors Rotheram and Burnham – would like Theresa May to resuscitate in effect his Northern Powerhouse project by announcing at either the Conservative Conference or in the Autumn Statement some version of HS3, linking Liverpool to Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and even Hull. But, with these cities not having a Conservative MP between them, it seems an unlikely priority.

And here the ministerial meetings listed in the table surely do tell us something – most obviously that “the amount of ministerial access and contact with senior echelons of government that the mayors have been afforded is more than council leaders and chief executives would normally expect”.

But it was the WM Mayor whose both quantity and quality of access gave the Local Government Chronicle the headline it had clearly been gagging to unleash:

Don’t knock it – what’s the betting that the editor won’t, before the year’s out, have a column entitled ‘Street Corner’?

Back to business … Mayor Street may indeed be “Tory London’s man in the West Midlands”, to quote defeated Labour candidate Siôn Simon, but in this case it was the Tory Minister who did the calling: Business Secretary Greg Clark, who delivered in person the Government’s confirmation of a second devolution deal.

In doing so, moreover, Clark kickstarted a policy affecting potentially the whole of English local government that for the previous 12 months seemed almost completely to have stalled.

For that reason alone, and with due acknowledgement of Andy Burnham’s adept handling of the impact and consequences of the Manchester Arena bomb attack, and the other mayors’ early achievements in this artificially short time span, Mayor Andy Street has to be the recipient of my Michael Fish award for just possibly prompting a change in the local government weather.

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