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‘A Tale of Two Cities’: Can metro mayors navigate the contradictions of devolution?

Amidst academics critical of city-region devolution and more enthusiastic think-tanks, local leaders argue that this was the only devolution on offer and thus had to be seized with both hands and made to work. Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region are making progress and Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram celebrated their first years’ achievements. Yet various contradictions are emerging which will be analysed in our forthcoming book A Tale of Two Cities: Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region.

‘Filter down’

Devolution to mayoral combined authorities was largely justified on the basis of the economic growth such agglomerated economies could deliver and while mayors wax lyrical about their ability to boost growth, they also seek to advance a wider social vison about fairness in focussing on such issues as homelessness. Ultimately, however, they must rely on the assumption that voters will benefit from the ‘trickle down’ gains from economic initiatives and assume that growth will benefit all.

Consequently, Mayors, and their cabinets, seek co-operation and even leadership from business interests as, and work towards matching their policies to the needs of employers. This is evident in Liverpool City Region where new roads are sought to link the port of Liverpool with the north-west. This may well boost connectivity but could significantly worsen local air pollution. The benefits of overall economic growth are not spread equally and it is of little comfort to residents who claim a shortened lifespan as a result.

Giving with one hand, taking with another

A second contradiction is that while mayors desperately need Government funding to support flagship projects, such as harnessing the tidal power of the Mersey, they maintain highly critical stances on national government policy. Burnham, for example, has highlighted the contradiction between the fact that for every homeless person his rough-sleeping initiative removes from the street, Universal Credit puts back two more. They are shouting loudly whilst simultaneously having to nurture Whitehall for funds by evincing their shared goals and interests.

Despite rhetoric about promoting inclusive growth from metro-mayors, they clearly understand that they will be judged on the economy. When Steve Rotheram suggested recently that the Government might decide to end the devolution project in 2020, he knew that the governmental evaluation will be on GDP and GVA measures.

‘Filter out’

There is also the problem of assumed ‘filter out’ benefits and the contradiction between the core cities in metropolitan areas and the needs of the outer boroughs. Agglomeration theory privileges the economic hubs of metropolitan areas as the engine for growth, yet the majority of voters live outside the core cities. The local election results in May 2018 suggest that local issues do matter: voters punished Conservative councillors in Trafford while Labour lost seats in Bolton and Wigan. In the aftermath of the results the MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy, expressed concern about the political neglect of towns at the expense of investment aimed at the great cities. She has not been an opponent of devolution but is commenting on the risks of city-based policies.

Andy Burnham is, however, fully aware of the issue. He has established a ‘Town Centre Challenge’ aimed at regenerating declining outer boroughs and he is striving to enhance public transport links around the entire urban area. Equally, in Liverpool City Region, the cultural weight of Liverpool has been balanced by the metro-mayor’s decision to designate St Helen’s as the first Borough of Culture with an allocation of 200K to support this annual Borough of Culture programme.

Place leaders?

If anyone can overcome these complex and conflicting contradictions, then the leaders in places like Liverpool and Manchester are likely candidates. The ability to tackle the dilemmas at a more coherent spatial level than that of the nation-state, along with the pragmatic approaches taken by Burnham and Rotheram, is promising. Many academic commentators are too dismissive of this new devolution experiment. To say the current model of devolution is a ‘constitutional revolution’, as some political agents do, is perhaps optimistic. However, local leaders are well aware that contradictions exist and, as politically astute enthusiasts for their place, are well placed to set about managing them.

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