There was a telling moment on the local election campaign trail in Gloucester this week when Boris Johnson was asked if he knew who the West of England mayor was.
Waffle ensued. Johnson – who once said that as the first prime minister since Clement Attlee to have been a mayor, he knew the “the transformative potential of local, accountable leadership” – evidently did not know that since 2017 the Conservative party’s Tim Bowles has been the “metro mayor” of the region he was visiting.
There would have been no such confusion had Johnson been 135 miles north in Greater Manchester. There, posters of Andy Burnham by the local artist Stanley Chow now outsell his geometric renderings of the Manchester United legends Alex Ferguson and George Best, as well as the Stone Roses and Liam Gallagher.
Chow’s portrait – now Burnham’s Twitter avatar – shows the former Labour health secretary in what has become a defining moment of the first four years of metro mayors. He is dressed in a cagoule, delivering what was dubbed his “king of the north” speech on the steps of Manchester’s Central Library last October, refusing to allow the government to close down the region’s hospitality industry without proper compensation.
While Burnham has become a political pin-up, Bowles has packed in the gig after just one term. Both of their jobs are up for grabs again on 6 May, along with the mayoralties in the Liverpool city region, Tees Valley, West Midlands and Cambridge and Peterborough. The first elections for the mayor of West Yorkshire will also take place, with the actor turned Labour MP Tracy Brabin the favourite ahead of the low-key Conservative candidate, Matt Robinson, a Leeds councillor.
When George Osborne introduced the idea of metro mayors as part of his “northern powerhouse” back in 2014, there was widespread derision at the idea of anywhere in the urban north electing a Tory mayor. But low turnouts and a supplementary vote system that takes into account electors’ second preferences if no candidate gets more than 50% can produce surprising results.
The biggest shock was Ben Houchen, then a 30-year-old Tory councillor from Stockton-on-Tees, winning the Tees Valley race on a turnout of 21.3%. His victory in Labour’s industrial northern heartlands was later called the “first blue brick in the red wall”. He was soon joined on Teesside by four Conservative MPs, including one in Tony Blair’s old constituency of Sedgefield.
Houchen has since built a strong local profile by tackling totemic local issues – buying up the airport and championing the regeneration of the Redcar steelworks – and leveraging his political capital to bid successfully for a freeport and for the Treasury’s northern outpost to be in Darlington. A survey by the Centre for Cities recently found that almost half of residents knew who he was, more than any other metro mayor apart from Burnham, who had highest name recognition, and Sadiq Khan in London.
Unlike Khan, who can make unilateral decisions without interference from London’s constituent councils or members of the London assembly, most metro mayoral moves have to be signed off by a majority of local authority leaders. Though the mix of devolved functions varies, these are largely in the areas of planning, transport, business support, further education and economic development. Burnham is the only one to control the police and fire authority and a housing investment fund, and have influence over joint arrangements for health and social care.
Some find it easier than others to build consensus. In Tees Valley, Houchen must negotiate with two independents (in Middlesbrough and Redcar), one from Labour (Stockton), one from the Brexit party (Hartlepool) and one fellow Conservative in Darlington.
Andy Street, who swapped his job as managing director of John Lewis to run successfully for the Conservatives in the inaugural mayoral race in the West Midlands in 2017, believes his business background makes it easier to transcend tribal party politics when working with the four Labour council leaders on his patch. “It means you are naturally much more collaborative, much more used to the process of setting out a strategy and presenting it and getting those deals done,” he said.
Mayors might not have much hard power, he said, but they do have “huge soft power, the power to convene, bring people together. And that’s actually the most important part of this job.”
It is this soft power, he said, that has allowed his region to “win competitions” under his leadership, such as Coventry bagging city of culture and Birmingham being chosen to host the Commonwealth Games.
In the Liverpool city region, the mayor, Steve Rotheram, has arguably had a harder time negotiating with his own party. All six constituent councils are Labour-run, but he often ended up in the shade of Joe Anderson, who, confusingly, was the mayor of the city of Liverpool.
Anderson stepped down in December after being arrested as part of a police investigation into allegedly corrupt property deals, along with senior council executives and his son, a health and safety consultant. He denies all wrongdoing but the fallout has been so damaging for Labour in Liverpool that the party is no longer confident of holding the mayoralty with its new candidate, the inconveniently named councillor, Joanne Anderson.
“None of it is helpful,” said Rotheram, who has spent much of his first term focusing on skills, digital connectivity and renewable energy. “You could write an episode of The Thick of It just based on the Liverpool city region in the last four or five months. You wouldn’t have to add anything.” He worries that Liverpool “as a brand” has suffered reputational damage as a result of the fallout – a problem when he and his counterparts in other regions are always trying to sell their cities to investors abroad.
He, like all of the mayors, believes their powers should be strengthened: ‘“Anything that you can do more locally is better for that area, rather than for Whitehall mandarins to decide, who could maybe point at Liverpool on a map but not Halton or St Helens.”
Like Burnham, he wants to push for “London-style powers” on transport – the ability to set fares, routes and timetables – and also wants control of the apprenticeship levy, which is currently administered via Whitehall.
Andrew Carter, the chief executive of the Centre for Cities, says that while the “oppositional approach” taken by Burnham and, to a lesser extent, Rotheram may well have pushed the government to improve local lockdown deals last year, ultimately it may backfire.
“Over time it has become more problematic when it comes to going back to the government to ask for more things,” he said. “This government in particular does not relish challenge … it is also less keen on devolution [than the Cameron/Osborne government], and part of the reason for them going cold is they see now these oppositional mayors with big mandates and big platforms and they think: why bother? They extend that to Scotland and Wales as well. Johnson thinks: why am I giving Sturgeon or Burnham or Drakeford, these oppositional politicians, resources and platforms, and all they’re doing is just kicking me in the teeth?”
The government has drawn the wrong conclusion from the challenge, Carter believes. He said: “Our mayors are in a halfway house scenario where they have some powers and some responsibilities but not quite enough. I would say you want to give them more direct responsibilities for things – making sure lots of housing gets built, make them really responsible for the transport and skills system – and hold them to account if they don’t deliver.”
Metro mayoralties up for election
Greater Manchester If Andy Burnham doesn’t coast through to his second term, Labour may as well pack up for good. He won 63% of the vote in 2017 and may do even better this time around, his profile buoyed by his combative stance against the government during Covid and high-profile local campaigns to reduce homelessness and refranchise bus services.
Liverpool city region With all six local councils solidly Labour and only one Conservative MP in the region, Steve Rotheram should hold on to Liverpool. But expect his 59.3% majority to go down after his campaign was tarnished by a corruption scandal in Liverpool city council, in which saw the Labour leader, Joe Anderson (himself the city mayor), was arrested.
West Midlands It is neck and neck between the Conservative incumbent, the former John Lewis boss Andy Street, and his Labour challenger, the former minister Liam Byrne. In the 2019 general election the Tories won 725,000 votes in the region to Labour’s 723,000.
Tees Valley Though he only narrowly triumphed in 2017, taking 39.5% of the first round votes to Labour’s 39%, Ben Houchen should win a second term – a testament to an energetic first term in which Teesside has become the government’s pet region.
West of England Labour thinks it will take this under-monitored mayoralty from the Conservatives after the incumbent, Tim Bowles, decided to step down. Like in Liverpool, there is confusion over the existence of an elected mayor in Bristol, the most powerful of the constituent local authorities.
Cambridge and Peterborough It is easy to forget this region has a metro mayor but since 2017 it has been represented by a Conservative, James Palmer. He will face a decent challenge from the Liberal Democrats, who came second in 2017, and Labour, which was third.