9 May 2024

Do we really need metro mayors?


Whisper it softly. Most of those metro mayors’ who were elected last week with such political drama don’t have very much power. Prestige? Certainly. Influence? Without a doubt. But power? Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, does have (unfortunately) significant authority over transport, policing and planning. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, also has some real clout. But the rest of them? Not really. 

Consider the case of the Mayor of the West Midlands. It almost seems bad manners – as Andy Street absorbs the pain of defeat and his Labour rival Richard Parker celebrates victory – to point out that it’s a bit of a non-job. 

The grandiloquence begins with the title. The ‘Mayor of the West Midlands’ is really the Mayor of the Black Country. The West Midlands Combined Authority, over which the Mayor presides, covers the local authority areas of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. Not Shropshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Warwickshire or other parts of the West Midlands. 

That is still a large bit of territory, of course. The fact that, broadly speaking, the Mayor’s electorate covered the Labour bits of the region, not the Conservative bits, makes it even more of an achievement that Street was elected in the first place. 

But when the mayoralty was setup, as with the other ‘devolution deals’, the existing local authorities stayed in place and kept all their powers. Indeed, the new arrangements offered several councillors thousands of pounds each to attend a few ‘scrutiny committee meetings’ of the West Midlands Combined Authority. A total of £139,000 was spent on ‘members allowances‘ last year. So it’s hardly surprising that they should raise no objection. But that still leaves the difficulty of something for the Mayor to do. Policing is given to a different post of Police and Crime Commissioner (unlike the arrangement for Burnham in Greater Manchester and Khan in London). 

So central government looked at what it could devolve. Adult education was one item it came up with, mainly the funding for further education colleges. If there isn’t a metro mayor, then a quango called the Education and Skills Funding Agency gives money to FE colleges directly. Where there is a metro mayor, such as in the Black Country, the Education and Skills Funding Agency gives money to the mayor to pass on to the FE colleges. I don’t think it makes much difference to how much money an FE college gets or what it teaches. Does it really mean that an FE college in Walsall is any better or worse than one in Warwickshire? I doubt it. 

Then there are the buses. The mayor doesn’t run them – they are private companies. But they manage the franchising, decides on where the bus stops should be, the routes, tries to get a good deal over the fares, etc. Before, if a bus station needed to be repainted a local quango called the West Midland Transport Authority was given some money from the Government to do it. Now the Government gives the money to the mayor to do it. That’s local democracy for you.

What about housing? The local authorities still have responsibility for council housing and for planning permission for new housing. The compulsory purchase power for derelict land is the same as exercised elsewhere by the Homes and Communities Agency – as is the HCA spending to ‘clean up’ those sites for housing. But under the devolution deal, the HCA and the Mayor ‘work together’ on such projects in the West Midlands Combined Authority. Hard to seriously claim much tangible difference. 

In their rival manifestos, Street and Parker had to finesse the impotence of the role they were competing for with some careful wording. A claim from Street to have ‘secured funding’ for something was usually code for a project that under the Treasury formula would have been allocated anyway even if there wasn’t a metro mayor. Set up a taskforce here. Appoint a commissioner there. Held a meeting, championed this and campaigned for that, ‘worked with’ those that really do have power. 

Parker used the phrase ‘work with’ 63 times in his manifesto. Shamelessly, there was a whole section on crime where all he could do was ‘work with the Police and Crime Commissioner’ who is the one (at least potentially) who has real power in this area. Lots of promises to ‘work with’ local authorities, businesses and central government – which means making requests that they can accept or ignore as they see fit. 

I happen to believe that Government in this country is too centralised. Boosting local democracy would provide better accountability than the quangocracy. The NHS would be an obvious area to apply this. But the cynical, gimmicky arrangements we have at present for metro mayors are a fake version. The media and the political parties find it convenient to collude in the pretence that they are real. The voters aren’t stupid though. I think they can spot it’s a bit of a scam. 

Making decision-making as local as possible should also mean passing down responsibilities to existing local authorities rather than creating a new layer of bureaucracy as some new prestige project. 

I’m sure Street is a capable and decent man. His CV of running holiday camps for disadvantaged children and of being Chief Executive at John Lewis is impressive. The tone he adopted was sympathetic and persuasive. It may well be that businesses considering locating in his area felt his civic leadership was a reassuring presence – even if it was intangible. Keeping the Council Tax precept at zero and avoiding undue meddling with the bus companies showed a degree of restraint which his successor would do well to continue. 

But what is bizarre is Street’s record being trumpeted as a vindication of an interventionist approach. Older readers may recall Michael Heseltine’s rousing speech to a Conservative Party Conference in 1992 where he said that to protect British industry: ‘I’ll intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner. And I’ll get up next morning to start again.’ But his budget at the Department of Trade and Industry remained pretty small, so British industry had to sort itself out as best it could.

Rhetoric (thankfully) did not match reality. Generally, the state has got much bigger since that time. But the West Midlands Combined Authority is a relatively modest manifestation of that. Naturally, the Conservatives will wish to commiserate with Street – as they will congratulate Ben Houchen on his victory in Tees Valley. However, we musn’t pretend that Streetism amounts to some coherent new direction for Conservatives to march towards. 

The Conservatives have some serious issues of substance to face up to. They can put forward some tough choices based on Conservative principles or just be swept along by events. But the delusion that salvation comes from Andy Street’s mayoral record is merely displacement activity.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.