As the dust settles on ‘Super Thursday’, most of the media narrative has focused on Hartlepool and the usual Westminster psychodramas. But the results in the metro mayoral elections are far more nuanced than the national discussion would suggest and could have a big impact on the levelling up agenda.
Labour delivered some notable successes – unexpectedly winning in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and taking the West of England, both from the Conservatives. Although not a surprise, Tracey Brabin became the first female metro mayor by comfortably winning West Yorkshire. It’s big hitting incumbents – Sadiq Khan (London), Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) and Steve Rotheram (Liverpool City Region) – all won at a canter.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Ben Houchen, 2017’s surprise victor, poured salt in the Hartlepool wound by delivering a thumping Conservative win in Tees Valley. In the West Midlands, Andy Street built on his personal brand to ease to victory in what should be a close marginal.
And these results really matter, because the next term could be a defining one for the role of metro mayor.
The government is committed to ‘levelling up’, with references littered throughout the Queen’s Speech. And if it wants to funnel greater investment to the regions, then surely metro mayors provide the ideal vehicle. They understand their regions, are prominent locally and have powers over many of the areas vital to achieving any definition of levelling up. Most importantly, they are directly accountable to voters.
Both Houchen and Street have made no secret of the fact that their party-political connections have helped bring investment to their areas. Tees Valley in particular has benefitted from a host of eye-catching spending pledges that have delivered results for the Conservatives at the ballot box. A Conservative government giving money to a Conservative mayor is an easy sell.
But while there have been some successes in Labour-held mayoralties over the past few years, they’ve struggled to break beyond the original city deals. If we’re to build back better from Covid, all sides will surely need to be more ambitious.
As my colleague Roxy Blake has pointed out – everyone wants to level up. Burnham has been quick out of the blocks calling on the government to ‘back him’ to deliver his ‘TfL-style’ transport plans. But if the tit-for-tat between Westminster and City Hall over the past 12 months is anything to go by, we could have a rocky road ahead.
If, however, central government and the mayors can find a way to row in the same direction then the Tees Valley experience could be replicated across England. The opportunity would be there for a programme of investment that could transform regions, led by figureheads – Conservative, Labour or other – grounded not in Westminster but in their communities. Party politics will always play a role but given manifestos across the board have committed to levelling up, there’s an urgency for all to be seen to be delivering.
Let’s not forget that (London aside) metro mayors are in their infancy. If, over the next three or four years, the new mayors and central government can find a way to work together to deliver on the much talked about devolution agenda, then metro mayors could symbolise a fundamental shift in how we invest (whether in skills, jobs or infrastructure) across the country. If not, then it’s hard to see the role of metro mayor ever living up to its full potential.
In her first appearance on Today following the election, Brabin emphasised her “commitment to deliver” and accused the government of little more than “talking the talk”. It strikes me, though, that it’s only by working together than we’ll ever fully be able to walk the walk.
Kai Pritchard is an account director at Camargue.