30 April 2018 | By Peter McManus Insight

Metro Mayors: a year on

With the local leaders already having an impact, business engagement must become the norm

The word ‘Mayor’ usually conjures up an image of a man in red ceremonial robes, struggling under the weight of a heavy gold chain. Or, if you were in Hartlepool during their first local mayoral election in 2002, a man in a monkey suit

Although H’Angus the Monkey wasn’t on the ballot paper last May, this week marks the first anniversary of a quiet revolution in some parts of England.

This devolution revolution led to the creation of six new metropolitan mayors, covering four of the top ten largest cities in England. They include a former Government Cabinet Minister and a previous Managing Director of John Lewis.

The powers and influence of directly elected mayors differ. However, one thing is universal - the level of their ambition

The powers and influence of directly elected mayors differ, ranging from control of a £6bn healthcare budget (Andy Burnham, Manchester) to a board position on the biggest regeneration project in the UK (Ben Houchen, Tees Valley, has a seat on the South Tees Development Corporation). However, one thing is universal – the level of their ambition. Whether it’s a proposal to buy the local airport (Mr Houchen again…) or to make his region the UK’s “capital of innovation and productivity” (James Palmer, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough), this new generation of local leaders is already having an impact.

A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, showing that children in northern regions are falling behind their southern counterparts, highlights the scale of the task facing some mayors. Productivity performance has a direct impact on living standards and opportunities, which is why the CBI embarked on a year-long study into the UK’s regional productivity differences. Unlocking Regional Growth identifies and suggests remedies to close these gaps between the UK’s most and least productive areas, improving people’s lives.

The report identified education and skills and transport links as the two most important drivers of regional productivity. With each, there are important levers Mayors can pull.

For example, with 9 out of 10 of the UK workforce expected to be in employment 10 years from now, effective use of their devolved powers over apprenticeships and the adult skills budget can make a big difference. Mayors can bring together providers and businesses to ensure skills delivery meets the needs of local economies. Liverpool Mayor Steve Rotheram, himself a former apprentice, has done exactly that by surveying 2,000 local businesses to explore their skills needs, demonstrating how businesses and mayors can work together to tackle local skills challenges.

Although devolved powers over transport infrastructure are limited, the Mayors have shown an ability and willingness to use that invisible lever – soft power.

Transport infrastructure spending has always been a bone of contention for regional leaders

Transport infrastructure spending has always been a bone of contention for regional leaders, particularly in the North, but those with Mayors now have a louder cheerleader. After much lobbying – some private and a lot public – in November the government announced that half of its £1.7bn infrastructure fund would go directly to the six areas with a metro mayor, leaving the rest of the country to fight for the other half. Sceptics said politics played a role – 4 of the 6 Mayors are Conservative – but this was undoubtedly a sign that perhaps the greatest power these new positions possess is a louder voice on the national stage. It’s important that this voice is used to amplify the needs of local employers.

Businesses also have plenty to say about infrastructure, transport included, so the CBI’s Shaping Regional Infrastructure report is vital reading for regional leaders.

The CBI has developed good relationships with all six, alongside sitting on a number of Mayoral Business Advisory Groups. Six will soon become seven, when Sheffield elects its first Mayor this week, so it’s important that local business engagement becomes the norm, rather than a “nice to have”.

All things being well, North of Tyne – the eighth area looking for a slice of this devo-prize – will appoint an interim Mayor in the summer, with their first election this time next year.

It’s early days, but if this new generation of civic leaders continue to work with local businesses and improve lives (and if we get our first female metro mayor) then that outdated view of mayors may just be about to change.

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