When the history books are written about the first wave of England’s metro mayors, it will be a story of surprises.
Whilst four results went with the traditionally dominant Labour and Conservative representatives, both the West Midlands and Tees Valley surprised outsiders who missed the potential for well-established Tory support in more prosperous boroughs to turnout for victory.
But more so, as Westminster and Whitehall’s legislative agenda has all but stalled in the face of Brexit negotiations and disagreement, these newly established positions have staked new claims for policy innovation and delivery, and work across the traditional political divide.
As a spiky debate develops around contrasts and similarities between town and city, rural and urban areas, it is evident that the six combined authorities represent different stories within England.
Since their election, Mayors Tim Bowles and James Palmer have spoken frankly about their work responding to inflated house prices and road congestion issues that accompany high tech economic success around thriving Bristol and Cambridge. Meanwhile, Mayors Ben Houchen and Andy Street paint a different picture of homes available for under £20,000, or the transport challenges across a conurbation of 18 urban local authorities.
Yet, even after just two years, there is a clear picture of devolution in action as mayors take local decisions to meet diverse policy priorities. Indeed, it is the regions seen as most traditionally industrial that can claim to have staked out policies to use their industrial strengths to thrive in the future economy.
Across the country, decision-makers have been crying out for more leeway to tailor skills to local economies. Here, Labour’s Steve Rotheram has made high profile interventions to support apprentices with a new Apprenticeship Portal to better inform and open up opportunities available for young people in one place, from traditional trades to new courses. So too his Apprentice Travelcard has halved the cost of bus travel for 19-24 year old learners.
Less tangible perhaps, but Rotheram’s success encouraging six local authorities to be more collaborative is being noticed positively beyond the Mersey — something their Greater Manchester neighbours have deployed to obvious economic and political benefit since the 1990s.
In Tees Valley too, economic growth has been the hallmark of Ben Houchen’s relentless engagement, with local business supporting innovation to lead the UK’s hydrogen economy and advanced materials sectors, alongside development of the South Tees Development Corporation site and reaching out to inward investors.
The public purchase of Durham Tees Valley Airport with devolved funds is the most eye-catching devo intervention, perhaps surprisingly for a Conservative mayor. However, with strong local public and business support, plus the recruitment of Stobart Group as airport operator, it delivers his principal manifesto commitment in just two years. How many Westminster governments can boast that?
Mayor Andy Burnham stepped into his Greater Manchester role as the most naturally-accomplished political performer, but his passion to tackle homelessness in the region is clearly deep-felt and sincere. Tackling rough sleeping with bed schemes and personal commitment from his salary has made an impact, but so has the so-called ‘bully pulpit’ of the mayor as he has worked to raise the issue up the political agenda beyond North West England.
As a business leader to match Burnham’s political cachet, the tight win for former John Lewis MD, Conservative Andy Street, has been followed by triumphs for Birmingham and Coventry as hosts of the 2022 Commonwealth Games and 2021 UK City of Culture respectively. These sporting and cultural opportunities – which won’t all be plain sailing given tight deadlines for the Games in particular – offer new branding potential especially for this industrial powerhouse region and the ability to demonstrate that the West Midlands can deal with high profile, international events.
A three-year term is not long to bed-in long-term change but the metro mayors are already stamping the principle that, whatever you think of their manifesto, the new posts are delivering local decisions in key areas, with local control of funds.