The general election may be the immediate focus of political commentary, but elections in six city regions will bring an important new tier of political decision making to England that will be worth watching. The election of new metro mayors will unlock the devolution of powers and budgets to the city region level, giving Westminster the confidence to hand power down.
The direct powers being handed down include strategic planning, with a focus on accelerating house building, and control over a single transport budget, which will enable planning and investment at a city region scale that better accounts for where local people live and how they travel to work. Metro mayors will also control a consolidated investment pot and skills funding, and so can ensure local needs are prioritised and met.
The wider scope of the metro mayor role is just as significant. They will be prominent new political actors, with a profile that extends beyond their actual powers, meaning they will be well placed to lead on the green agenda.
Environmental goals should be on the agenda from day one
If city regions are to succeed economically over the long term, they will need to be resilient to climate change, putting a strong low carbon economy and care for the natural environment at the heart of their plans. Sustainable transport systems, high quality parks and waterways, clean air and warm homes are not just environmental goals, they are central to the quality of life a city region can offer its residents and those businesses and employees they hope to attract.
Green Alliance has collaborated on a new report, with the National Trust, CPRE, Campaign for Better Transport and The Wildlife Trusts, looking at what the new metro mayors can do within the scope of their powers, and highlighting actions on other issues, like improving green infrastructure, that could be brought into their remit. It centres on a Green City Regions Index measuring each of the six regions against 17 different green indicators, including air quality, home energy efficiency, care for the natural environment and brownfield housing development. The report makes recommendations both generally applicable to all the metro mayors and specific to each city region.
All six city regions are failing to comply with EU limits for nitrogen dioxide. So it is clear that investing in sustainable transport has to be a top priority to tackle poor air quality. Recommended actions include targeting transport budgets at cleaner, greener transport systems, to support a shift away from the car, and to use smart ticketing for easier transfer between modes of travel.
As metro mayors will lead on deciding where to build new homes, we stress the importance of setting clear ambitions for quality, design and energy efficiency, using brownfield sites and increasing housing density sensitively.
Given their role in planning new developments, it is essential that the metro mayors are mindful of the impact on the natural environment, even though their powers do not officially extend to this. Green infrastructure strategies, produced at the city region level, would be a practical point of referral for strategic and spatial planning, giving an overview of local green assets and the opportunities for enhancing them.
What’s ahead for metro mayors as they start work?
Many city regions are new entities, and all of them require effective new relationships between the metro mayor and their constituent local authorities. Our index highlights some of the tensions they will have to manage.
In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, for example, the city region’s top score on cycling reflects Cambridge’s ‘cycling city’ culture, but belies the picture for the whole region which has high car dependency. Significant investment in congestion management and sustainable transport will be needed. The area also has a poor record on care for the natural environment compared to the other city regions; this will need addressing in the context of much needed new housing development. Tees Valley’s devolution deal is focused on securing its economic future, with a welcome focus on low carbon opportunities. But this doesn’t have to be at the expense of the local natural environment. The metro mayor will need to make sure that development goals are informed by a comprehensive understanding of the risks and opportunities for the area’s natural environment and water quality.
The West of England’s new metro mayor will be judged on the extent to which they learn from the Bristol’s greenest city status, and bring the city region up to the same standards, or whether they allow Bristol’s achievements to become diluted at the larger scale. Addressing local public transport deficiencies and taking an early lead on air quality would signal the right direction.
In the north, Liverpool City Region has welcome ambitions on water quality and performs well on the natural environment. But it has the highest number of deaths from human caused particulate air pollution out of the six city regions. The metro mayor must improve local transport options and clean up the region’s air, for instance by investing in electric vehicle infrastructure.
Greater Manchester has led the way on devolution and its spatial plan is already drafted, albeit contested. The incoming metro mayor will need to agree a plan that enables the necessary development without sacrificing care for the surrounding natural environment and built heritage, which are both at risk. Greater Manchester’s progress already on integrating transport has been good and offers lessons to other metro mayors on planning at the city region scale.
The West Midlands has been one of the closest fought campaigns of the mayoral elections. Whoever wins, they will need to apply their influence to the poorer aspects of the city region’s green record: ie high fuel poverty, poor quality existing housing stock and low recycling rates. Although, these issues are not directly within the new metro mayor’s remit, they are central to quality of life. The metro mayor can use their prominent profile to accelerate action and improve the situation for the people of the West Midlands.
Time will tell
Metro mayors are an interesting new facet of English politics. There is a risk they will go unnoticed by the electorate, or leave citizens further disaffected as they inevitably fail to solve all local issues. But, hopefully, they will prove their worth on areas like housing and transport. They have the power to apply focus and influence at a scale that makes sense and produces results, which could re-energise local politics and offer a new route to economic progress. And, for the long term, environmental progress must be integral to that.
Greening City Regions: opportunities for new metro mayors is published today.
The organisations behind this report will be holding an event with the new metro mayors approximately 100 days into their term to explore progress on environmental issues and opportunities for action. Details will be posted on our events page nearer the time.