Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram: their first six months working with the combined authorities

Six months have passed since Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region elected metro-mayors. In this first of a series of three blogs we assess their progress so far

The English metro-mayors elected in May 2017 have been in office for six months but to what extent has this political milestone gone unnoticed? With much of the national political agenda taken up by Brexit and cases of sexual misconduct, city-region devolution has not been particularly visible at the national level, but on the ground there is activity. Where the issue has raised attention, however, it has often been at the expense of neglecting the structural reality that the powers of metro-mayors are circumscribed by the powers allocated to the combined authorities.

Taking Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester as case studies, this blog explores the flagship policies set in motion during this initial period of the new mayoralties, examines the powers of the metro-mayor and their respective combined authorities and questions the extent to which the metro-mayors are becoming a collective force in English local politics.

The starting point for each metro-mayor was clearly distinct. Speaking at an event in October Andy Burnham described how on day one of his term in office he arrived at his Oxford Street premises to be greeted by staff who ‘garlanded him with flowers’ while Steve Rotheram is reported to have told colleagues that on his first day his office was just like the ‘Mary-Celeste’ with nothing in place. It is noteworthy that Burnham commented that for all the advantages of his position there were inhibitions created by the fact that he had a solid institutional inheritance in place which could constrain his ability to effect change.

Nevertheless, the long history of inter-council collaboration in Greater Manchester (which we have written about previously), culminating in the creation of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, did provide institutional capacity allowing Burnham to hit the ground running. In contrast, Rotheram’s first priority was to set up an office and recruit staff to work alongside him.

The Manchester Arena bombing, which occurred two weeks after polling day, also dramatically differentiated the beginning of Burnham’s term in office from that of Rotheram’s. Burnham found himself catapulted to the forefront of Greater Manchester politics as the visible symbol of the city-region for the national and international media and local people. Moreover, as one Greater Manchester council leader asserted to us in an interview, the 2017 Arena bombing was clearly different from the 1996 Manchester city centre bombing in that it was clearly a Greater Manchester event in its impact. The Manchester Arena bombing helped to cement Burnham’s public visibility and also set the tone for those first early weeks in office.

In the first six months, both city-regions were unlikely to see much in the way of concrete policy achievements. What has characterised each metro-mayor is a set of announcements which highlight the policy areas each is going to focus on. From such announcements, it is clear that three of the main areas for both mayors are education and skills, transport and economic growth and housing policy and the homeless.

With regard to education and skills both Burnham and Rotheram are adamant that the people of their regions are a great asset but that better skills provision is a pre-requisite for exploiting this. Both are also critical of national policy-makers in this area for their neglect of the North and their unresponsiveness to the skills agenda. There is an awareness that the skills people have today are not likely to be those required in ten years’ time particularly with regard to Rotheram’s aim to advance the digital economy in Liverpool City Region. Rotheram argues that business should drive the skills agenda and neither Burnham or Rotheram favour the emphasis of national education policy on the English Baccalaureate or the overriding importance of the aim for schools of maximising the numbers achieving 5 A’s to C’s at GCSE levels. Burnham is pursuing his campaign commitment to set up a UCAS-style system within Greater Manchester so that young people who are less academic can see clarity in fulfilling their aspirations for technical and vocational education and also to implement free bus passes for 16-18-year olds to enable them to access educational and employment opportunities.

In terms of transport, there is much concord between the mayors about HS2 and the need for rail electrification and improving east-west links as keys to unlocking the potential of the Northern Powerhouse, while each has their own distinctive city-focused perspective on how transport improvements should proceed. Rotheram has urged a ‘crossrail for the north’ but with more stops for Liverpool City Region and he also wants HS2 building to begin in Liverpool. A high-speed link line to Liverpool is a priority and the pressures for this to occur from a combination of politics and business led to the issue being discussed at the Conservative party conference in Manchester in October. Burnham wants a link between HS2 and an east-west HS3 and has a plan to develop Piccadilly Station to build ‘a layered station’ to maximise land use.

Burnham has clearly been in the vanguard on homelessness.  It is estimated that four hundred people a night sleep rough in Manchester, many of whom are former soldiers. Burnham has pledged to eradicate rough sleeping by 2020 and has set up a mayoral fund to achieve this to which he donates 15% of his mayoral salary. Some of these monies raised have already provided support for a 15-bed homeless hostel in Cheetham Hill. Burnham believes homelessness is the most visible sign of an unequal society and that one third of the population suffers from insecurity in work and housing and are only a few pay cheques away from becoming homeless. In the past six months, possibly demonstrating ‘catch-up’, Rotheram has professed to emulate some of Burnham’s policies.

In terms of housing, both Rotheram and Burnham want to exploit brownfield sites but also want to remove planning restrictions and build cheaper modular housing. Rotheram refers to the Strategic Housing and Employment Land Market Assessment (SHELMA) currently being undertaken in Liverpool City Region which is intended to provide an evidence base for housing and employment land needs, although he implicitly acknowledges his lack of power to push policies forward.   Burnham wants a new mind-set on planning to ensure the right houses are built in the right place and not driven by the profit motive of developers which will require interventionism. He effectively condemned the existing Greater Manchester Spatial Framework and wants to end plans for urban sprawl,  build housing in decaying town centres, protect the green belt and ensure that housing is viewed holistically in relation to amenities, public services and infrastructure.

What emerges clearly from these early policy initiatives is that each metro-mayor is attempting to go far beyond the limited range of formal powers at their disposal while reluctantly acknowledging that they are constrained by both their combined authorities and national government. Already evident from their manifestos and electoral campaigns, it is clear that each will seek to maximise their positions by taking full advantage of their soft powers. Yet in order to realise their aspirations they need to galvanise support particularly from their respective combined authorities where most of the devolved powers actually lie and to receive more active support from ministers in Westminster.

It would be a mistake to judge the metro-mayors solely in their particular local contexts.  What is equally important is the extent to which the metro-mayors have begun to work together on a pan-Northern and England-wide basis. There are incipient signs on both levels.  Burnham has stressed that if the North of England was ever to become more than just the sum of its parts then a modern rail system is essential. He promised that the North will speak with one voice on this and that a conference to be held in Newcastle in 2018 will enable all northern combined authorities to lobby for this. At the national level, London hosted the first of a series of summits attended by all seven of England’s city-region mayors on November 1st. Together the metro-mayors requested Government devolve more powers arguing that is the only way of boosting economic growth across England and of improving public services.

Certain key points emerge from the first six months in office which have implications beyond the case-studies of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region. Metro-mayors see their role as providing vision and high-level strategic oversight, yet in political reality, metro-mayors are emerging as at least convenors and at most place-based political leaders. They are constrained by a lack of formal powers to enable them to pursue their policy agendas. The context of national political uncertainty, Brexit and continuing austerity also challenges their ability to fulfil their aspirations. There appears to be more promise, however, in the prospect of the Northern, or even all of the English metro-mayors, becoming a potent collective force to lobby Government for extended powers and more resource.

A likely area for inter-mayoral collaboration, acting in concert with their respective combined authorities, is transport policy in which all northern mayors have a collective interest in developing the Northern Powerhouse and one which enables them to focus on an undoubted area of ‘hard’ powers. We aim to discuss this and other key policy areas in our next blog.