With the establishment of new metro mayors and new powers for existing ones, English devolution looks as if it will be one of the winners of the Levelling Up white paper. But this new generation of mayors will be working in a very different economic context to those appointed back in 2015. Their mission must be to rethink and reimagine our subregional economies in order to build a more equitable recovery.
Regional and sub-regional metro mayors (not to be confused with directly elected mayors that cover one local council area, introduced under the previous Labour government) were touted as a lynchpin of the so-called “devolution revolution” of the mid-2010s – itself designed to drive growth across larger economic geographies. The theory was that new subregional tiers of governance, headed by directly elected mayors, would help to galvanise public and private support for new investment. The indicators for success were improvements in productivity and a closing of the gap between London and the rest of the UK.
Central government’s expectations, however, that metro mayors would stick to a fairly strict diet of conventional economic approaches, meant that the powers and freedoms devolved to them were limited – to a deregulation of planning, inward investment and partnerships – and designed to retain a deliberate strategy to help attract and retain investment, typically from larger global investors.
But in an era of uncertainty – with Covid-19, Brexit and the environmental crisis all looming large in the economic consciousness – this approach to economic development falls far short of what is needed now. The pandemic has revealed much about our country’s inequalities, showing that even where there has been economic growth it has had little impact on the economic and social challenges facing communities.
And now that devolution deals are finally on the table for more rural and polycentric areas, like Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire, they will need more flexibility to meet the diverse challenges faced by their businesses, communities and public services.
Michael Gove has previously stated his admiration for the US mayoral system. However, in contrast to the picture described above, the mayor of New York is able to use their influence to go much further – crucially because they have the powers to do so. Rather than being hemmed in to rely solely on inward investment from large, global players, Bill De Blasio, who left office in December, began building the infrastructure to reimagine the economy with the objective of creating more equity for the longer term. At the centre of the world’s largest metropolitan area De Blasio began exploring how to connect residents, particularly those on the lowest incomes, to the huge wealth that already exists.
The New York mayor’s office began running a series of projects in neighbourhoods across the city, supporting the expansion of worker co-operatives, employee ownership and community credit unions, to help authorities and communities alike to understand what is possible if you reconnect people to the economy and give them a real stake in the future.
In the UK, while mayors are limited in terms of their economic powers, many have been using their soft power to get to grips with some of the challenges of their places. This has included efforts to create new metrics around economic prosperity, more pluralistic approaches to economic ownership, and thinking more ambitiously about how the spending power across a city region can be used to support economic development and challenges such as climate change.
To take this work further, and to enable the new metro mayors to emulate their success, the government must commit to giving them the levers they need to diverge from the economic status quo. Only this will enable them to address the challenges faced by communities that have borne the brunt of the extraction of economic and social power on their high streets, their housing markets and employer bases.
The government has already pledged to free up what it calls EU bureaucracy so that spending power can be used to grow British industry. At the Centre for Local Economic Strategies we have been supporting local authorities to do just that for over a decade and we know that there is already a huge amount that can – and is – being done within the parameters of the current legislation. The crucial missing piece is often an awareness that public expenditure can be an active tool to support and shape a progressive economic future. What is needed are the economic powers to enable wealth to flow more easily in local economies – for example, greater control over planning powers along with giving mayors a greater say in fiscal policy.
Ultimately, the success or failure of English devolution rests on the extent to which central government is prepared to let local and combined authorities get on with the job. Yet, even to access the funding for levelling up requires them to spend their time filling out forms to chase piecemeal pots of money rather than giving them long-term flexible funding to get on with the task. If central government continues to dictate the agenda for mayors from Westminster then the opportunities for new ideas and innovation to emerge will be stifled.
Just announcing new mayors and new powers will not tackle the long-term economic challenge of our places – it will take a long time for devolution to translate into progress on the ground. Change would come much faster, of course, were the government to invest in the work of the local authorities that brokered the devolution deals in the first place. They have the flexibility (although not always the resources and capacity) to deliver. How councils operate, the services they provide and the way they work with communities sets the tone for mayoral geographies, so their role is crucial in thinking about how we build a more inclusive economy longer term.
Most importantly, in trying to imagine a different type of economic future, mayors must take their lead from the citizens who elect them. A commitment to devolution must come hand in hand with a commitment to new forms of democracy and scrutiny at the local level, including citizens assemblies and juries. In the current context, political accountability has never mattered more.
Sarah Longlands is chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, a think tank developing progressive economic policy for local and regional authorities.