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Could the age of Metro Mayors be upon us?

Could the age of Metro Mayors be upon us?

🕔07.Apr 2013

Washed away by the Budget headlines of pints, petrol and pump-priming a property-owning democracy to help jolt Britain’s zombie economy back to life, the real domestic story of last week was the Government’s response to the Heseltine Review. Hidden away in the detail there can be found what might just be the embryonic refashioning of a new English constitutional settlement that cuts across increasingly archaic, and potentially restrictive, administrative boundaries.

The contents of Heseltine’s single pot are to be unveiled in June after what must be a fairly bitter Whitehall turf war to maintain silo brickwork and preserve departmental spend. What we do know is that local areas will have greater control over housing, skills and transport funding – providing that Whitehall approves each LEP’s strategic growth plan. Given that most LEPs are ‘unencumbered’ by much that could be mistaken for bureaucratic capacity, it is councils that will be tasked with devising these grand local plans and identifying strategic sub-regional projects to driver local growth, in conjunction with their public and private sector partners.

Greater Manchester was first off the starting blocks, but the creation of its Combined Authority is testament to decades of voluntary collaboration by the area’s ten councils, in contrast to the slowness of other city-regional areas to grasp this opportunity. Yet the prospect of oversight and supervisory control of LEPs and the monies set to come their way, plus acting as the Local Transport Body, could be the rocket that is needed to provide the next devolutionary boost, creating something akin to London’s citywide authority.

All that is needed to complement strategic governance at the spatial level of the functional market economy, is to vest executive authority in the local electorate, rooting the democratic mandate in the concerns and priorities of citizens and communities.

With Government now edging towards Heseltine’s call for Conurbation or ‘Metro’ Mayors we could soon be seeing a reverse out of the tangential cul-de-sac that was last year’s largely failed referenda on elected Mayors. Representing no real changes to the traditional council operating model whilst presented as a panacea for solving local problems, local electorates perhaps understandably vetoed this vanity exercise, seeing through the proposals as nothing more than the creation of a new municipal imperium clad only in a birthday suit. However, it is worth noting that the biggest opposition to the idea of a directly elected council leader often came from the local parties themselves, keen to maintain control over the selection of the leadership.

Future change has to be bottom-up, with local campaigns articulating the benefits and opportunities that flow from the catalytic championing capacity and high profile, democratically accountable strategic leadership of the sub-region and stewardship of its economy.

It is surely high time that other parts of the country are able to compete on equal terms with London. Against the backdrop of a challenging economic climate and an increasingly globalised world it could be argued that if England’s cities fail to re-establish themselves along these lines they are at risk of becoming second rate also-rans, a permanent fixture at the bottom of Europe’s league tables of top cities, chronically underperforming and unable to maximise opportunities on the world stage.

Government is opening the door – it is now up to councils to act – and for their partners in the private, public and the third sector, together with citizens and communities to demand action.

The age of the powerful yet accountable ‘Metro’ Mayor could soon be upon us.

 

Daniel Crowe is Senior Research Fellow at Localis, the localism and local government think tank. For information  contact daniel.crowe@localis.org.uk.

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