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31 May 2017updated 05 Aug 2021 7:27am

Power to (half the) people: metro mayors and their teams are 94 per cent male

Talk about a democratic deficit - the six new metro mayors are all male, and their "top teams" are 94 per cent male.

By Helen Lewis

The election of six new metro mayors earlier this month was supposed to give more power to Britain’s cities and regions. But one group has ended up losing out – women.

All six of the newly elected mayors are men – Labour’s Andy Burnham in Manchester and Steve Rotheram in Liverpool, and the Conservatives’ Andy Street in Birmingham, Tim Bowles in the west of England, James Palmer in Cambridgeshire and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley. 

And there’s another problem, which is only emerging as the new mayors nominate their cabinets, which are largely drawn from the leaders of local councils. They’re often all men too.

Here is the list of Steve Rotheram’s “top team”, announced on 26 May, and their portfolios. Have a look and tell me what’s missing:

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If you guessed “a woman”, collect 50 points, but don’t pass Go, instead sit there and be a little bit depressed. For all the talk of handing power back to the people, we have ended up with a male mayor and nine male Cabinet members overseeing the Liverpool metro region of 1.5 million residents. 


Now, this is not all Steve Rotheram’s fault. In Liverpool and elsewhere, the constitution of the Combined Authority – the legal structure which gives directly elected mayors their powers – require that portfolios are given to its members. These are the local council leaders and the chair of the Local Enterprise Council. In Liverpool, these are all men. 

As well as these seven dudes, Rotheram has also tapped up local councillor Liam Robinson, and Merseytravel chief executive Frank Rogers. I understand that he wanted to co-opt two women onto the combined authority, but was rebuffed at the meeting where the appointments were made and realised that he didn’t have the votes to get what he wanted. “The AGM on Friday was a formal meeting and not really the opportunity to look at comprehensive, radical structural change,” Rotheram said in a statement. “That is a process that is ongoing and I remain fully committed to creating a more diverse and representative administration.”

He added: “I fully understand that this has led to an unacceptable gender imbalance which, despite the constitutional constraints, I am hoping to address when I announce further appointments to additional portfolio areas in the near future.”  

So at least Steve Rotheram acknowledges there is a problem. Unfortunately, a very similar pattern has become apparent in the other metro mayoral areas. 

Peterborough and Cambridgeshire

In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the Conservative mayor James Palmer has two male deputy mayors – Peterborough City Council leader John Holdich and councillor Robin Howe – and an all-male cabinet, made up of councillors Steven Count, Peter Topping, Lewis Herbert, Charles Roberts and John Clark. (Click here to enjoy a photograph of their glorious diversity – one is wearing a white, rather than blue, shirt.)

West Midlands

In Birmingham, Andy Street had to pick a deputy mayor from among seven council leaders in the West Midlands Combined Authority – and at the time only one of them, Bob Sleigh, is a Conservative. Dudley council is now led by a Conservative – another man, Patrick Harley.

And yes – you guessed it – the five Labour council leaders are all men too: John Clancy of Birmingham City Council; George Duggins of Coventry City Council; Steve Elling, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council; Sean Coughlan, Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council; and Roger Lawrence, Wolverhampton City Council.


In Manchester, Andy Burnham had more flexibility in his appointments for deputy mayors – and ended up with one man and one woman  – Sir Richard Leese and (Baroness) Beverley Hughes. But again, further down the chain he is working with an intensely male-dominated local political scene. Four other cabinet posts have been announced, which have all gone to men: Rishi Shori, leader of Bury Council; mayor of Salford Paul Dennett; leader of Stockport council Alex Ganotis and leader of Rochdale council Richard Farnell.

Overall, the ten-strong Greater Manchester Combined authority has just one woman, Labour’s Jean Stretton, leader of Oldham Council.

Again, it’s something that Burnham and his team are aware of, but changing the ratio will be difficult. Under the previous interim mayor Tony Lloyd, deputies were appointed to some portfolios, drawn from local councillors, which allowed for more female and ethnic minority representation. 

Burnham’s mayoral manifesto committed him to a gender-balanced Combined Authority and said he would “agree a plan with member councils as to the best way of achieving it as quickly as possible”. It also stated: “All committees, panels and boards that advise the Mayor will be gender-balanced – such as the business advisory board. Invitations to appear on all-male panels will be refused.”

Tees Valley

Of the five constituent councils in Tees Valley’s combined authority, four are headed by men: Bill Dixon in Darlington, who oversees transport; Christopher Akers-Belcher in Hartlepool, who has the education portfolio; mayor Dave Budd in Middlesborough, who oversees tourism; and Bob Cook in Stockton, who also becomes deputy mayor and takes responsibility for housing. The sole woman is Redcar and Cleveland’s Sue Jeffrey, who was Labour’s (losing) candidate for the metro mayoralty, and who takes responsibility for business. The chair of the local enterprise partnership is Paul Booth.

West of England

The West of England combined authority has three members: Bristol and north-east Somerset (council leader Tim Warren); Bristol (where the mayor is Marvin Rees) and South Gloucestershire (where the chair of council is Ian Blair). The press office for the combined authority tells me that the interim chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership will also attend meetings. Is he a fella? You betcha! Come on down, Professor Steve West. A deputy mayor will be announced on 28 June. 

Now, the picture is not uniformly bleak – the West of England press office note that its interim chief executive is a woman, as are the chief executives of two of the three councils. However, there is clearly a specific issue with combined authorities because they are largely made of council leaders. It’s the same issue with, say, Question Time booking or lobby journalists – it’s no one’s fault, per se, but lots of organisations each individually sending a man adds up to an overall dramatic gender bias.

Power to (half the) people

By my reckoning, among the new metro mayors and their “top teams”, there are 48 men and three women. That means they are 94 per cent male. 

So what can be done? There are a couple of potential solutions. First, the membership of the Combined Authorities could be broadened and mayors could co-opt members on to them. However, this will require the current members to agree, as there are legal and constitutional implications. “The point of devolution was to give more powers to councils, so it’s hard to impose anything on them,” one source told me.

Secondly, the parties could look at practical ways of getting more women involved in politics at the local level, and eventually rising to lead more councils. There’s no way you could ever have anything equivalent to All Women Shortlists for council leaders – the resistance would be too great – so the change has to come from altering the pipeline. I’ve only looked at gender balance here, but ethnic minority representation – which is harder to measure – also looks very low. 

Let’s hope some of that happens. These statistics are grim if you believe a) that it’s important to have politicians who have an affinity with the people they represent; b) homogenous groups make worse decisions; c) it’s wasteful to overlook half the potential talent pool. 

Until then, when politicians talk about devolution giving power back to “the people”, remember: half of those people are being short-changed.