Wednesday May 01 2024.

5 minute read

Mayoral elections: who’s who in the battles to lead our regions?

As devolution deals continue to be struck across England, mayors are becoming some of the most powerful and recognisable people in our politics.

The public will take to the polls tomorrow in the final local contests before the general election, with ten mayoral seats up for grabs as part of a bumper day of voting.

These almost presidential-style elections are still relatively new to the English electorate, but the profile of regional leaders is growing. With that, what significance will results this week have on key issues across the country, and what precedence might they set for the future of devolution?

Races to watch

Labour’s incumbents – Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham, Steve Rotherham, Tracey Brabin and Oliver Coppard – are sure bets to win again, but there are some combined authorities where the fate of the current mayor is harder to predict.

Andy Street is a prominent and generally popular leader in the West Midlands – and has sought to distance himself from the Conservative Party amid its struggles. As part of his campaign he is pushing ‘Brand Andy’, focusing on the amount of inward investment that will be delivered in the region through creating more job and training opportunities.

According to one poll, Street is currently 14 points behind Labour candidate Richard Parker, who is a newcomer to frontline politics. Like his rival, his experience is largely in the private sector. While at PwC he led the team that established the combined authority which he now seeks to lead. He is pushing improvements to public transport and to bring this under public control as seen in Greater Manchester.

Another combined authority that looks increasingly likely to turn red in the upcoming election is the Tees Valley. Current Conservative mayor Ben Houchen was labelled the ‘poster boy for Levelling Up’ when he defied the odds to win in the former red wall stronghold in 2017, before consolidating this with a commanding 73 per cent of the vote in 2021. Like in the West Midlands, he is promising to deliver significant transport investment in the region – having already brought the Tees Valley airport into public ownership, Houchen’s focus is now on new roads and tram services.

Recent polling has found that only 19 per cent of local people would vote for Houchen, with Labour candidate Chris McEwan the bookies’ favourite. The current deputy leader of Darlington Council says he would integrate local transport networks along with a green skills promise to capitalise on emerging opportunities in sustainable industries.

Great expectations

Expectations are high in the newly-established York and North Yorkshire, East Midlands and North East combined authorities. Given the profile of established mayors across the country, the public will be looking to elect someone who they believe can provide a strong voice for their region.

In the North East, Labour candidate Kim McGuinnes is clear favourite. Like most contenders across the combined authorities, she has pledged to invest in transport infrastructure and deliver a boost in affordable housing.

Rival candidate Jamie Driscoll is currently Mayor of North Tyne (which will be subsumed within the new North East combined authority), and is standing as an independent after he was deselected by the Labour Party. He has been endorsed by RMT general secretary Mick Lynch who says that Driscoll would provide “a strong voice that will put the north east first, whatever government is in power”.

The East Midlands devolution deal includes Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, leaving neighbouring Leicestershire ‘stuck in the middle’ of combined authorities in the midlands. Unlike the West Midlands, the two front runners for mayor come with significant political experience. Labour’s Claire Ward was a New Labour minister, and Ben Bradley serves both as leader of Nottinghamshire County Council and is MP for Mansfield.

Ward has focused her campaign on delivering high energy efficiency standards for new homes and supporting green energy industries in the region, while Bradley’s pledges include improvements to public transport as part of the combined authority’s £1bn transport package.

York and North Yorkshire is the most rural of all the combined authorities, spanning an area five times the size of London but with a population of less than one million. It includes Selby and Ainsty where Labour won their biggest ever majority in a by-election last year and Rishi Sunak’s own Richmond constituency.

Conservative candidate Keane Duncan, a former Daily Star journalist is hoping to be the first mayor. He previously made headlines as the youngest council leader in the country when he lead Ryedale District Council from 2019 at age 24. His mayoral pledges are ambitious, including building half-price homes to help first-time buyers get onto the property ladder.

Keane’s rival is Labour’s David Skaith, a small business owner in York who previously chaired the York High Street Forum, his manifesto includes the delivery of a cost of living recovery plan and a new transport system to better connect communities.

While these candidates are making big promises for their regions, there is a significant difference between their powers and those of well-established combined authorities such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, who are capitalising on trailblazer deals. Whoever wins, one of the most important jobs of mayors in new regions will be to develop institutional capacity for the long term.

Left-behind regions?

Devolution is in vogue and its appeal is increasingly widespread – so a big question for the coming years will be how those areas without a deal fare. Areas such as Staffordshire, Lancashire and much of the south and east of England come to mind – though there are plans afoot for deals in some of these places too.

If, as expected, Labour wins big in both the local and general elections, one potential problem for its Westminster leadership will be how it navigates the balance between central and local government as the autonomy of our combined authorities increases. With devolution still arguably enjoying a honeymoon phase, the rise in high-profile, powerful regional leaders has the potential to permanently reshape both policymaking and politics.

May 01, 2024

5 minute read

Mayoral elections: who’s who in the battles to lead our regions?

As devolution deals continue to be struck across England, mayors are becoming some of the most powerful and recognisable people in our politics.

Apr 17, 2024

3 minute read

The Greenbelt: a general election battleground

Since the Greenbelt was introduced in the 1950s to limit the sprawl of cities, it has largely been protected by policymakers. However, ahead of the upcoming general election, battle lines are being drawn between Conservatives and Labour regarding its role and purpose, amid a wider planning debate.

Written by

Natasha Kendall

Account Director

Read more about The Greenbelt: a general election battleground

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