The hard and soft powers of England’s new metro-mayors

Transport and homelessness show how Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are using their formal and informal powers in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region

Eight months into their role as metro-mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region respectively, the policy priorities of Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are beginning to be more clearly defined. Any reservations about the metro-mayoral capacity to deliver their policies does not inhibit them from advancing ambitious and long-term goals. Both Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are making transport a key area of their policy formulation. This is not unexpected as it is one of the explicitly hard powers with which they have been vested.

Despite Burnham’s determination to conceive of transport in Greater Manchester comprehensively as an integrated whole his main enthusiasm is for the re-regulation of the buses. He is highly critical of the deregulation polices introduced by the Thatcher Government in 1986 and is anxious to utilise the powers granted in April 2017 to re-regulate the role of buses. He has already persuaded the companies to provide half fares for 16-18 year olds and pledges to deliver free travel on the buses for that age group before the end of his first term in office. He also wants the metro tram system to be extended and for there to be a system of smart ticketing with the aim of allowing a passenger unlimited travel during a given day for a limited cost. He is critical of the quality of the rail stations in the metropolitan area as many are badly lit, unsuitable for disabled access and even insufficient in some parts of the city region. Traffic congestion is at a crisis point and he strongly promotes the improvement of new cycle routes and walkways to attract motorists from excessive car usage.

Transport counted for three of Rotheram’s ten key pledges as part of his future vision. One of his major pre-election promises concerned the need for cheaper fast-tag tunnel charges to make cross-river transport and movement easier and more affordable. One of his ten pledges was the announcement that the price of ‘fast-tag’ tolls would come down from £1.20 to £1. He has also announced the commissioning of the design for a new state of the art Mersey Ferry. Another pledge was to ‘rebrand and remodel’ the current Walrus card to make access to the Merseytravel public transport network more ‘streamlined’ and ‘customer friendly’. This would involve new payment technologies and a new-look system of smart ticketing more akin to the Oyster card used in London. Finally, as in Greater Manchester, Rotheram will explore how devolution powers and bus re-regulation can best be used to create a fully integrated public transport system.

Some of these priorities gained a boost from the injection of cash announced in the autumn budget which clearly rewarded the six city-regions with elected metro-mayors. Half of the Transforming Cities Fund was allocated on a per capita basis to the six city-regions with directly elected metro-mayors while the other half was open for bids from other areas.  Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region respectively gained £243million and £134million from this fund to allow them to invest in transport priorities.  While Rotheram welcomed ‘the positive announcements of £134m for transport in our city-region’, he expressed disappointment that ‘there is still no commitment to the potentially transformational Crossrail for the North’. This disappointment was shared by Burnham who has campaigned jointly with Rotheram for the electrification of train routes across the Pennines. Both made their frustration clear in the summer when the government announced they were proceeding with Crossrail 2 in London yet scrapping electrification of the transpennine routes.  Yet despite the national visibility this gained them, the furore came to naught.

There is clear evidence of policy emulation in the area of rough-sleeping and homelessness.  Burnham has made this his flagship policy despite the fact that this is an area where he has no formal constitutional powers. While the metro-mayors are only able to exercise soft powers to solve rough sleeping and homelessness, Burnham in particular has declared this ‘is a huge personal priority for me’ upon which he will be judged. Eamonn Boylan, the chief executive of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority concurred that ‘the Mayor’s soft power has probably been most notable in this work’. Burnham launched his term in office by setting up a rough-sleeping fund to which he donates 15% of his salary each month with the claim, made at a question time in Bury on 14th December 2017, that this shows ‘it’s not just words but deeds’. To date, the fund has raised £135,000 and the money raised has already been used to help open a 15 bed hostel in Cheetham Hill as well as supporting several charities who work with rough-sleepers.

Although it had not featured as prominently in Rotheram’s election campaign as it had in Burnham’s, rough-sleeping became one of his ten key pledges. The pledge to tackle homelessness was linked to the government’s announcement in the autumn budget that they would  invest £28m in three Housing First pilots to support rough sleepers with the most complex needs to turn their lives around. Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are the three metro-mayoral city-regions where the Housing First approach will be piloted.

While the above policy detail is significant in its own right, it highlights emerging political analysis. First, the arbitrary dichotomy between so-called hard and soft powers is becoming apparent. In elaborating his transport policies, Burnham links his plan to such inter-related issues as improving air quality, enhancing inclusion by improving accessibility, the location of new house building, the attraction of business investment and the accessibility of skills provision for young people and adults. While rough-sleeping is more self-contained, it links partially to homelessness and, in turn, the need to build new and affordable homes in the right places.

Both transport and rough-sleeping exemplify the joint working which is coming to characterise city-region devolution. To the extent that tackling rough-sleeping is a soft power, the metro-mayors must be active in building relationships if they are to make progress. Burnham has had to work with an array of partners – the local authorities who do have some of the responsibilities and hard powers in this area, housing providers, charities, business, the emergency services, the NHS and the public – to address this issue.

Although transport is a hard power, it is apparent that other actors intervene in the process. The members of the respective combined authority cabinets have preferences as their council districts are affected, the co-operation of the locally based private bus companies and, in the case of trains, the metro-mayors have no direct authority over the train companies. It also emerges in the public question-times held by the metro-mayors that the public have preferences which need to be accommodated. Both the so-called hard power over transport policy and the soft power over rough-sleeping reveal a policy network, although both metro-mayors are exploiting the strategic oversight which their public profile provides to promote their respective visions.

Finally, as Labour metro-mayors both are notably affected by their political values. Their choice to focus on rough-sleeping, despite having no formal powers in this area, points to ideological preference.  Similarly, with regard to transport, they are offering not just pragmatic solutions to the problems of the transport network, but express a commitment to developing integrated transport networks in which the public interest prevails over private profit. Both are interventionist rather than market-orientated. Yet, both have to work with a Conservative central government. The centrality of the Treasury is evident as both in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region there is as much effort required to influence central government to obtain the required resources. Burnham noted that ‘for each person we take off the street, universal credit puts two more on’. A sober reminder that central state policy and funding priorities can jeopardise achievements at the local level regardless of metro-mayoral commitments.