First impressions matter for England’s first generation of Metro Mayors



First impressions matter – not just in job interviews or blind dates, but for England’s first generation of Metro Mayors too. Resting on the shoulders of the half dozen elected mayors next May in the likes of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Sheffield city region is not only their own careers, but the reputation and future of English devolution itself.

That was the lesson of previous experiences of major devolution in the United Kingdom. In the early New Labour years Donald Dewar was central to the reputation of Scottish devolution. And it was Ken Livingstone, well before he got into the history of 1930s Germany, who demonstrated that even with limited formal powers the London Mayoralty could be used to drive an era of economic and cultural confidence in our capital.

In contrast the reputation of the post of Police and Crime Commissioner is still struggling to recover from the combination of incredibly low turnout (15 per cent in 2012) and woefully low profile (with honourable exceptions) of the first incumbents.

Now the campaigns are only just starting for these new Metro Mayors positions, and there is good news with some serious candidates putting themselves forward. Andy Street has given up a plum job running the nation’s favourite John Lewis to stand in the West Midlands, while Andy Burnham has given up a slightly less plum job in the Shadow Cabinet to be Labour’s candidate in Manchester. Other good candidates are of course available in both cities…

Less encouraging is the lack of a serious substantive debate on what these mayoralties should really be used to achieve. And that is a debate we badly need because, for all the PR around some of our cities, there is a big problem: the low level of living standards in many of our big cities is a national disgrace.

All English city regions bar London and West of England (ie greater Bristol) have lower living standards than the national average. Average weekly incomes are £30 less in our major city regions than in the rest of the country – and £40 lower if London is excluded. This is very unusual, and lies in stark contrast to the position of major cities in other leading European countries.

Not only on income, but on a range of measures, Britain’s major cities under-perform. The employment rate in our city regions trails the national average by nearly 4 percentage points. Aside from London, Bristol and Glasgow, people in cities earn nearly £1 less an hour than workers elsewhere.

The silver lining to this challenging economic reality behind Britain’s under-performing cities is that it gives a clear purpose to this new generation of leaders. There should be optimism because, despite limited powers being devolved, much of the problem has been a lack of visible economic leadership as much as which powers sit where. These elections provide the chance to out that right, but only if the candidates and then the Mayors focus in on these living standards challenges.

And there needs to be a debate because the challenges are different in different places, and so are the solutions. This after all was the point of devolution in the first place. The West Midlands is, to put it bluntly, a labour market basket case with low employment. Greater Manchester has an inclusive growth problem in spreading work throughout the region. Sheffield is just too reliant on low pay.

New Mayors, and indeed devolution as a whole, will be judged by the change that is brought on living standards, not on the powers that are demanded or devolved. People have long questioned the limited extent of the London Mayor’s powers. But that hasn’t stopped the position evolving into a blue ribbon political post, with soft powers that extend globally. The campaigns that are just beginning should avoid each candidate simply calling for more powers, and instead on what they would do with those powers in 195 days’ time.

These are big daunting problems, but they bring with them big opportunities for new Mayors. There is after all nothing worse than a politician without a mission.

The prize for delivering is higher city living standards goes well beyond the careers of these half dozen Metro Mayors and the electorate they serve. Make their mark and they can secure the future of devolution for cities throughout the UK.