Could devolving more power to Britain’s cities and regions help to stem a tide of political disaffection? Earlier this year, the U.K. took significant steps to grant more direct control to its regions by giving six metro areas—including Manchester and Liverpool—their first ever directly elected mayors, joining London whose mayorship was established in 2000 and breaking with British political tradition.
Still in their infancy, these offices are developing in a climate where regional British voters are increasingly skeptical about the effectiveness of decision-making overwhelmingly focused on London. Indeed, Steve Rotheram, the new mayor of the Liverpool City Region (and himself a former national MP for the Labour Party), suggests that this disaffection may well have been a factor in Britain’s narrow vote in favor of leaving the European Union in June 2016. In an interview with CityLab at the Citylab 2017 conference in Paris, he said the Brexit vote was partly about “giving a bloody nose to government”:
“Huge swathes of the north of England have felt for a long time that governments of all persuasion have left them behind. When you get that political disconnect, it ends up with a country taking a catastrophic decision. Some people that I've spoken with voted Leave because they thought it was firing a shot across the boughs of politicians, to make them listen. That’s a decision I think people who voted on those terms—which isn’t everyone—will come to regret for the rest of their lives, probably not immediately but in the years to come.”
Whether creating regional mayorships will help to turn around any of the disaffection expressed in the Brexit vote remains to be seen. Only in office since May 2017, it’s still too early to see how transformative Britain’s new metro mayors will be. Their powers, which vary slightly from region to region, have given them decision-making authority in key designated areas.
Liverpool’s mayor will have the power to shape city transit policy, for example, and has already begun the process of trying to re-regulate the city’s bus system. Rotheram’s team will develop a city master plan for land use, gain a new local investment fund, and retain a greater proportion of business tax revenue to fund local services. The mayor will also oversee adult education. Education and training is nonetheless an area where he is already pushing for an extension of metro mayors’ current jurisdiction.
“We metro mayors could make a huge difference in some areas, such as, for example, around skills. I’ve spoken to mayors around the globe who have the same sort of issues. We want to disrupt the local market for digital connectivity, we want to disrupt the energy market. If we were to do that, however, the skills agenda in education needs an exponential increase in the areas we want to disrupt. The government has a very clear set of targets that wouldn’t address our needs, so we need to be given some flexibility.”
Creating city networks that work as an alternative to national ones could also, Rotheram believes, create scope for bipartisan cooperation not always present, or possible in national politics.
“With globalisation people aren’t so parochial. People see what’s happening on a much wider basis. They see national governments, in the U.S. and the U.K., can’t address the needs of local areas. Party politics as we all know is very tribal and we all want to put forward what is the best message for our own supporters. But sometimes you have to put that aside to work together. I have disliked Tory governments throughout my life, yet I’ve found myself sitting round a table wanting desperately to work with them if it’s in the best interests of my area.”
For now, however, Rotheram and Britain’s other new metro mayors are still somewhat hampered by a major factor: they have a very low profile.
“Let’s be honest about this,” he admits. “Nobody knows what metro mayors are. Some people know a few of us, especially Andy Burnham in Manchester, but do they know what metro mayors are for? No. Still, 17 years ago Ken Livingstone was elected as the first mayor of London, and not an awful lot of people would have known what a city mayor was for. Ask amongst Londoners now, they'll know immediately about Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan. We need to get to a position where people look at us as that civic leader, as the person who is going to provide the vision for the city.”
All this works, however, only if Britain’s new metro mayors get enough leeway to make a difference. Rotherham and his colleagues must, for now, walk a tightrope in trying to fulfill the need for more local decision-making without necessarily having a full palette of powers to draw from.
“The real danger of devolution is that it becomes devolution of blame. If we don't get the right powers and resources we can't do the things that we want to for our individual areas, then you can imagine people will start saying it's just another tier of failed bureaucracy. That's the worst of all worlds because it means the experiment might well fail.”
While it’s too soon to assess how much “hard” power Britain’s new mayors are able to wield with their offices, they nonetheless have another significant role as figureheads, who can use their soft power to advocate for and, if necessary, unite cities under stress. With the terrorist attack on Manchester on May 23, the city’s new mayor Andy Burnham was thrust prematurely into this role as a voice for a city in mourning after just weeks in office. In the past, reactions from national figures to tragic events in Liverpool have at times been perplexingly tone deaf and ignorant. If Rotheram can provide a counterbalance to this pattern, advocating for a city that too often gets a raw deal in the national conversation, then he’s likely to gain a huge deal of local goodwill that can only strengthen his hand.