This post was first published in London Government Chronicle.
Since their introduction in the mid-2010s, it is fair to say that metro mayors have never enjoyed greater public and political visibility than they do currently after a series of recent political dramas. These include Andy Burnham’s spectacular showdown with Number 10 over compensation for three tier restrictions, Tracy Brabin’s victory in becoming the first mayor of West Yorkshire, triggering a hard fought by-election in her former seat of Batley and Spen, and the prime minister seemingly forgetting the name of the then sitting Conservative mayor of West England, Tim Bowles. Together with the day-to-day management of the regional pandemic response, these moments have demonstrated the capability of metro mayors, as well as their potency in influencing Westminster politics.
In total, the nine directly elected metro mayors represent roughly one fifth of the population of England. Subject to their individual devolution deals, they oversee considerable budgets and possess a range of powers, such as shaping economic growth, strategic planning, transport budgets and planning, skills budgets, and integrating health and social care. Considering these devolved powers, as well as their geography in the Midlands and North of England, metro mayors are uniquely well placed to help deliver the priorities right at the top of the government’s agenda: levelling up and boosting skills and training.
Equally, metro mayors’ remit of transport and housing (sectors which represent 31 per cent and 16 per cent of UK emissions respectively) makes them obvious partners for the government to achieve national climate targets. Alongside their direct powers, metro mayors possess ‘soft power’, such as a mandate for local action and relationships with local citizens, civil society and businesses, which enables them to adopt innovative and locally appropriate approaches to decarbonisation. In this sense, city regions can be seen as testbeds for climate solutions which can be adopted and scaled up by central government.
Despite the glaring overlap between the responsibilities of metro mayors and the priorities of Number 10, the government has failed to properly engage, utilise, or partner with regional leaders. As a former mayor himself, Boris Johnson should know better than to antagonise metro mayors by labelling some as “people who whinge and blame central government for things”, and should instead look to them as critical delivery partners in achieving his agenda. Here, the public are overwhelmingly in support, as shown by a recent Centre for Cities survey which found that, 83 per cent of people in city regions who went to the polls on the 6 May support giving more power to their mayor.
On the low carbon agenda too, there is a strong chorus of voices inside and outside of Westminster supporting a greater role for regional and local governments in reaching the UK’s national net zero carbon target by 2050. In our event yesterday, Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street said that metro mayors were better positioned than Westminster to “work on the government’s targets and achieve it faster, better and more efficiently for the public purse”. In addition, Andy Street called for greater devolved financial power in exchange for regional carbon targets which metro mayors could be held accountable for by central government. The National Audit Office (NAO), meanwhile, has argued that decentralised authorities have an essential role to play in reducing emissions in transport and housing sectors locally. But it notes that local and combined authorities currently lack clear direction from Westminster on what their roles, expectations, and responsibilities are within the context of the UK’s national net zero commitment. Alongside metro mayors and the NAO, the independent Climate Change Committee’s recent progress report stated that central government should co-ordinate with, and empower, city regions and local authorities to deliver on climate action locally.
To establish this delivery partnership, it is essential that the government’s Net Zero Strategy expected this autumn, which will spell out how targets will be met, acknowledges the role of regional and local authorities in decarbonisation at every level in a mutually agreed framework. This framework should set out the expectations for regional and local authorities to decarbonise in line with national strategy. It should also include long term stable funding streams to enable it to happen, that are not dependent on repeated applications to funding competitions, and it should set up realistic timeframes and resources for delivery at the scale and pace needed.
Catch up on our event on how metro mayors can be the route to faster climate action on our YouTube channel.