You might not know what they’ll be able to do, or even if your area is getting one. But this May will see the first Metro Mayors elected as part of a revolution in democracy designed to boost regional economies.
Seven English regions are being given more power to solve their own problems. In exchange for accepting these new powers, they’ll have to adopt a powerful new figurehead charged with driving economic growth.
It’s all part of the devolution agenda driven by the previous government and the concept is fairly straightforward: lots of factors crucial to getting things done rest upon local areas working together. But at the moment there’s no democratically accountable authority operating at that level.
On the one hand, we have unelected regionalised Local Enterprise Partnerships with multimillion pound budgets. On the other, elected councils aren’t always good at working across borders because they are so often focused on a smaller area dictated by more localised concerns. Metro Mayors, chairing combined authorities, will create democratic accountability at the regional level.
In the West Midlands, for example, Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton are among the seven authorities banding together to form an authority representing a coherent area with inextricable economic links. Similarly, 10 council areas in Greater Manchester, including Bolton, Salford and Stockport have signed a deal to form a new combined authority. The West of England is getting in on the act too, albeit in a much smaller area surrounding Bristol and Bath.
Across these regions and others (Liverpool, Sheffield, Tees Valley and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough) powers will be dragged up from local councils and pulled down from Whitehall.
If it all works, there’ll be some big positives. Planning logjams around brownfield sites will be freed up by new compulsory purchase powers; skills shortages will be reduced by increased investment in the right sort of training; and we’ll get new much-needed transport links between key locations. Some regions have even secured funding for the long-awaited integration of health and social care – a measure many feel is vital to securing the future of the NHS.
With these powers on offer, it’s no wonder experienced names from across the political spectrum are contesting the positions this May. Labour big-hitter Andy Burnham is ready to give up his place in the House of Commons for the Greater Manchester role. Former John Lewis MD Andy Street is the Conservative candidate fighting former Labour minister Siôn Simon for the West Midlands role. Former local government minister Stephen Williams is the bookies’ favourite to be elected for the Liberal Democrats in the West of England. UKIP and the Greens are also fielding candidates and there is a good smattering of the smaller parties and independents, creating a crowded ballot paper for voters.
Some people have argued that it’s wrong to concentrate so much political power in the hands of one person. But it’s undeniable that voters will get the chance to hold to account a new branch of government with a clear focus on big picture issues. Equally undeniable is that the impact of Brexit will pose both opportunities and regional economic challenges, generating a need for leadership and creative thinking like never before.
Can these bold new figureheads unlock new growth in our regions? We’ll start to find out the answer in some of them just three months from now.