England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Combined authorities and the role of a combined authority mayor


Kate Grigg is the Senior Research Officer at the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS). This blog is part of our LE2021 support and coverage. You can hear an interview with Kate here

On Thursday the 6th of May, England will head to the polls to vote in the 2021 local elections and this year is guaranteed to be particularly important for several reasons. First, these are probably the most complex set of polls ever planned – the 2020 set were postponed due to the pandemic, so they will happen alongside the set already scheduled for this year, and it will all have to occur in a safe and socially distanced manner. Second, these local elections are taking place against the backdrop of huge national crises and transformation, both Covid-19 and the impact of Brexit. And third, these elections will result in directly elected combined authority mayors for more people in England than ever before – almost 30% of the total population.

Since Greater Manchester became the first combined authority in back in 2011 more have steadily been established across the country. A decade on and we now have ten combined authorities – but what exactly are they? And what is the role of the combined authority mayor?

A combined authority is essentially a partnership between neighbouring councils to enable joint-working on certain policies and services affecting the whole locality. However as with anything concerning English local government, nothing is simple and when it comes to combined authorities there are some significant differences.

To start with, combined authorities are only found in certain parts of the country. Generally speaking they tend to exist across England’s metropolitan areas, but there are also examples that are more rural than urban, like Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Whilst all combined authorities have core powers in transport, skills and economic development, each also has its own bespoke devolution ‘deal’. This means that the total package of powers and funding for combined authorities varies according to their agreement with central government. In combined authorities with a mayor the deals are more encompassing because there is a directly elected individual accountable for the decisions made over devolved matters in their area. Currently only the North East has chosen to operate without a Mayor.

So if you do live in an area with a combined authority mayor, what difference does it make?

These mayors, sometimes called metro-mayors, hold a few powers exclusively but the role is probably best understood as a convenor and facilitator – collaborating with local council leaders, uniting partners around common goals, and using their wider influence to deliver on commitments.

During the pandemic response, the need for greater local organisation and leadership has become increasingly clear. Combined authority mayors that had previously been marginal on the national stage have gained visibility by highlighting the need to understand local circumstances, and pushing for decisions to be made closer to the people they impact.

If you live in a mayoral combined authority area, there is the potential for more local determination over policies and services. Having an individual as a spokesperson for an area can champion local causes, elevate local priorities and make the case for further devolution. Plus, the role of combined authority mayor has a unique advantage of a democratic mandate bigger than any MP. Encompassing a range of around 650,000 people in Tees Valley to almost 3 million in West Yorkshire.

If combined authority mayors can garner the support of local residents and institutions in their area their voice becomes incredibly hard to ignore. So what is at stake in these upcoming mayoral combined authority elections?

There are seven positions up for grabs this year, with four Conservative defences, two Labour defences and a brand-new contest in West Yorkshire.

Confusingly, as well as the combined authority mayoral elections there are also city mayoral elections taking place. So voters in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford will be filling in separate ballots for their city mayor and for the entirely different role of combined authority mayor.

Currently all incumbents are male, but this absurd imbalance could finally be shifted somewhat by the potential of Tracy Brabin winning in West Yorkshire, or maybe even Jessie Joe Jacobs in Tees Valley.

In many combined authorities the mayoral result will be a continuation of leadership, with Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester), Steve Rotherham (Liverpool City Region) and James Palmer (Cambridgeshire & Peterborough) almost guaranteed to hold onto their role.

However, we will definitely see new combined authority mayor in West of England, as the Conservative incumbent is standing down, and in the 2017 election this position was closely contested so it could go either way. Elsewhere in the 2017 elections there were incredibly small margins for Ben Houchen (Tees Valley) winning by just over 1%, and Andy Street (West Midlands) winning by just under 1% – ones to watch for sure.

Whoever wins on May 6th, the role of combined authority mayor is a challenging one. As we enter the recovery process, combined authority mayors will be tasked with co-ordinating a sustainable and equitable economic recovery in their areas. With the changes to the labour market and highstreets that the pandemic has accelerated, they will also have to engage a wider range of people in refining the future vision for places. Factor in the possibility that the mayor could be from a different political group to the other leaders within the area, and the potential for unpredictability or conflict is magnified. But the role is growing in prominence, with greater public awareness and increased attention from Westminster.

Any effective combined authority mayor really must harness their ‘soft powers’ in making the case for place, and in setting out what they wish to achieve. Above all, combined authority mayors will need to demonstrate how decision-making will be made more democratic through devolution, and how the public will have a seat around the table in deciding on local priorities and ambitions. Success will have to involve relationship-building, governing as ‘first among equals’, enabling residents and stakeholders to articulate, develop and deliver policies and services together.

Looking at the mayoral manifestos, many promise to ‘level-up’ by attracting outside investment. But perhaps the most convincing are those that recognise communities themselves are foundational to better outcomes, and that building long-term local capacity and resilience will be the best way to respond to future challenges.

CfGS facilitates the Combined Authorities Governance Network and offers direct support to existing and emerging combined authorities on the design of governance and scrutiny arrangements. If you want to find out more, please contact [email protected].



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