Metro mayors: three ways to reset local strategy

Next week newly elected metro mayors in six combined authorities begin their first day in office. Neil McInroy and Victoria Bettany from CLES urge them to use this historic opportunity to reset policy and address longstanding economic and social issues.

To date, policy opinion and mayoral manifestos have offered a laudable, but often limited, set of tactical policy innovations, including cheaper transport for sections of the population, actions around a living wage, housing affordability and tackling youth unemployment. Given the scale of the challenge, these may not be enough to successfully reset strategic policy. Rather, three key things need to happen.

1. Re-organise the economics of devolution: Financial investment and return has dominated the economics of devolution, hence the focus on property development and land value appreciation in city centres and other hotspots. Indeed, this focus has been over-egged in devolution deals through economic agglomeration and ‘earnback’ on growth. If this trickle-down approach is retained, we can expect the deepening of geographic divides across the combined authorities, with little significant increase in new or decent jobs. Of course, a focus on financial return is a universal component to city success but it should only be a part of the mix, and not take undue precedence over other forms of economic development and social investment.

An incoming mayor needs to be bullish

in revealing the false economy of austerity’

Furthermore, with ongoing global economic uncertainty and Brexit, it is probable that areas will struggle much more than is optimistically predicted (i.e. the Greater Manchester spatial framework is predicated on 2.5% annual growth of GVA until 2035). We need a more realistic consideration of growth, and policies which reconnect economic activity with environmental limits and social progress. This goes beyond the limited inclusive growth agenda and includes: industrial and economic strategies which balance financial and social return; and the acceleration of the new urban economic agenda and towards a more social narrative of cities including environmental obligations and protection, building a good local society, sharing economy, community wealth building and anchor institutions. This is the progressive devolution agenda

2. Reset democracy: Arguably, the single most important power that a mayor will have is their platform, their status and the soft political power of being the elected mayor. However, not many citizens are bothered or listening. Indeed, while the policy community talk up the great potential of mayors, it is probable that turnout for the metro mayoral elections will struggle to get above 30%.

The winning candidate should not react to any electoral apathy by limiting policy ambition. Instead they must reset the direction of representative democracy – making it more porous, open to people and more plural in its outlook. The winning candidate should acknowledge that citizens, communities and the voluntary sector need a bigger say, with greater prominence given to social value. In practical terms, this is about humility and movement building with more collaboration, convening the powers of others to do progressive things, including democratic innovations such as citizen assemblies and participatory budgeting.

Furthermore, the soft political power needs to be internally channeled to the combined authority bureaucracy, including officers and institutions, making clear that the agenda is about resetting the focus of politics to address real life social and economic ills. This will include giving more policy concern, if not a voice, to the unemployed, the low paid, the homeless and the have-nots.

3. Challenge austerity: Many of the issues facing the public sector can be directly linked to public sector austerity, which has deepened the social recession. Mayors will be hemmed in by this, as they will have little fiscal power to raise extra cash. They may well be left to merely manage austerity. While any new national government may change the frame to austerity, it remains imperative that an incoming mayor is bullish in revealing the false economy of austerity and be a belligerent thorn in the side of any retained national austerity. While the initial low turnout may prove restrictive, a growing plural city movement could create significant anti – austerity heft (especially if cities join forces) and a broad-based movement can start to build the case for more fiscal powers locally (i.e hotel tax) within a fairer national frame.

The new metro mayors represent an historic opportunity. On the 5th May, with a three year period of office, there will be no time to waste in challenging the limited and limiting policy and devolution context. Instead they must seek to flex what they can, and set out a clear social- and economically-just strategic trajectory. We are desperately in need of a strategic policy reset. Our new metro mayors must start the process next week.

  • This article was written by Neil McInroy, chief executive and Victoria Bettany, senior researcher at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES).


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