8th June is not the only important election

Six Metro Mayors, serving ten million people, will be elected on 4th May.

Five weeks before the General Election, on 4th May , “Metro Mayors” will be elected to serve ten million people in six city regions of England.  There is a danger these will eclipsed by the General Election but they should not be ignored not least as they are likely to deliver three or four more Labour Mayors who, if they work together well – and with London Mayor Sadiq Khan – may make up a significant opposition to the new Government post 8th June.

Labour’s candidates – Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool City Region and Sue Jeffrey in Tees Valley – are all clear favourites to win in their respective areas. However the election in the West Midlands will be close – Andy Street the Conservative candidate is the 4/7 favourite currently pushing Sion Simon MEP into second place at 6/4. The West of England is even closer with both ex Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams and Conservative Councillor Tim Bowles on 11/10. In Cambridgeshire & Peterborough the Conservative candidate Councillor James Palmer is expected to win.

A number of weighty manifestos have now been published. Andy Burnham’s “Our Manifesto for Greater Manchester” is just 12 pages long while Andy Street’s “Renewal Plan for the West Midlands” spreads over 48 sides. Perhaps the more surprising difference is style. Steve Rotheram’s “Our future together” and the Sion Simon “Manifesto” – 28 and 32 pages respectively – are policy heavy and even read at times like think tank documents with, for example, Steve’s reference to “developing a pathways to excellence programme” and Sion stating he will adopt “a radical and comprehensive open data strategy.” Andy Burnham’s is more populist in tone populated , as it is, by lots of images of talking heads. Meanwhile Andy Street’s is long on “I will”. In all I counted a massive 238 specific promises including 10 in the first 100 days and eight ways that if elected he intends “lives to be changed by 2020”.

All manifestos major on transport, business support, adult skills and housing. This is of course in line with the actual powers that the Metro Mayors will have. However given that transport is by far and away the policy area where the Metro Mayor will have most resource – including staff, finance and policy levers as they will inherit the relevant transport authority such as Transport for Greater Manchester – and where they can make most difference – there is surprisingly little detail and in one manifesto it does not appear until page 20. However Cllr Palmer has been very specific saying the first thing he wants to do is put in motion plans for an underground in Cambridge and a light railway into Cambridgeshire.

There are many other  issues raised in the manifestos well above and beyond those where the Metro Mayor has formal – hard – powers. They show that ambition is not in short supply although, of course, the question will be with limited resources how many of these is it realistic to expect to be delivered. I have picked eight – two from each of the manifestos under inspection – but there could have been many more:

  • We will place trees at the heart of development, and protecting ancient woodland and ancient trees (Sion Simon)
  • I will be an advocate for people impacted by poor mental health ..[ensuring] a dementia and autism friendly region (Steve Rotheram)
  • We will work with schools to establish a GM “curriculum for life” [and] call for the introduction of a GM Schools Commissioner (Andy Burnham)
  • I will get a grip of air pollution [and ] support the development of autonomous and electric cars (Andy Street)
  • We will develop a city region programme for culture that celebrates every expression of creativity including fashion, music, dance, design, film, sport, art and architecture (Steve Rotheram)
  • I will campaign for Birmingham to host the Commonwealth Games in 2026 …[and]  Channel 4 must relocate to the West Midlands (Sion Simon)
  • We will establish a gender balanced Youth Combined Authority (Andy Burnham)
  • I will act as the West Midlands representative to businesses and investors in London and abroad (Andy Street)

One issue which also attracts considerable attention – irrespective of party – is homelessness and rough sleeping. Andy Street says it is “unacceptable and shames us as a region”. Andy Burnham commits to ending rough sleeping by 2020 by establishing a new Homelessness Action Network and a new Mayor’s Homelessness Fund to which he has pledged 15% of his mayoral salary. Sion Simon says he will create a Mayor’s office of housing and seek to end “the Tory scandal of homelessness” by adopting the ‘no second night out’ principle. Steve Rotheram commits to working with local authorities – who of course have lead responsibility for this issue – promising “co-ordination, best practice and fresh thinking” as well as a ‘housing first’ approach.

How these commitments all work out will be important but their inclusion is testament to the fact that candidates need to address the issues before them and in the public eye – and as we see on air quality, mental health and woodlands there have been successful lobbying campaigns.

Finally it is interesting that all four candidates – and irrespective of party – see themselves as lobbyists for greater power. Chapter one of Sion Simon’s manifesto is titled “I’ll fight for our fair share”  and states “I’ve set up a Fiscal Commission to tell me how we should change the Barnett Formula and examine ways greater fiscal freedoms could be used to improve economic performance. Andy Street’s first of his 238 pledges commits himself to “work with the Prime Minister and Government to ensure the needs of the West Midlands are heard in London”. Andy Burnham says he “will call for the Apprentice Levy to be placed under the direction of the Mayor and allow for it to be developed into a Skills Levy”.  Steve Rotheram points out devolution is not just about devolving power and resources: “it must also mean devolving and relocating government departments, major public bodies or national broadcast organisations.”

The candidates have much in common. All suggest devolution is the chance to fundamentally dilute the concentration of power and wealth in the capital. That will certainly not happen straightaway not least because, after the General Election, Brexit will come back centre stage with a Queen’s Speech likely to be dominated by the Great Repeal Bill and associated legislation. But on May 4th there will be ambitious Metro Mayor champions added to the political landscape and for nineteen million people, including London, Metro Mayors will be key figures on the political landscape with voices distinct from the of the next Prime Minister.

Lora Shopova