England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Mayoral elections – nearly over but everything to play for


What did I learn last week when writing and editing five briefings on the mayoral elections, reflects Janet Sillett.

Firstly that ploughing through manifestos isn’t as exciting as watching Line of Duty. But it can be interesting. Though manifestos are very rarely visionary and these clearly weren’t.


These elections do, however, mean real change. Nine and a half million people will be represented by a new type of governance. The mayors and combined authorities have some significant powers and the potential to be real leaders for their areas.

But what about the challenges?

So that’s all good (as they say). What about the challenges?

The areas included in the combined authorities are not always ones you would naturally put together. Will the residents come to love them?

The snap general election will have overshadowed the importance of these elections and underplayed their agenda. Will that lower the turnout? I am not sure it will – there is more political activity on the ground after all. The problem is the turnout in some of elections was anyway not expected to be high – it is clear that the campaigns haven’t all captured the public’s imagination. A really low turnout could have an impact of a mayor’s authority – as it did for the PCCs after their first elections. There is also the inevitability of the results being seen merely as indicators of the ‘real’ election on 8 June.

What else? Though there is new money it isn’t a huge amount, given the challenges. With continuing cuts to local government and other public services will this additional money be seen to make much difference to local people?

Then there are the inevitable tensions – between the new mayor and the councils represented in the combined authority or between the new metro mayor and the already directly elected mayors – in Salford and Bristol maybe. Between the mayors and central government. Tensions where responsibilities overlap. There will be priority differences within the CAs – how will, for example, those of both Peterborough and Cambridge be met?

But let’s focus on the potential

Before the general election was announced there was a growing interest nationally in these elections. There has been more lobbying by local organisations from the voluntary and private sectors than we normally see in local elections. Especially, and unsurprisingly, in Greater Manchester where the combined authority is already high profile and where the mayor and CA will have wider powers than the others – with some responsibility over the £6bn health and social care budget while also taking on the functions of Police and Crime Commissioner and control over fire services.

The manifestos did show that one size doesn’t fit all – each area reflected their local priorities and concerns. This must be one of the key benefits of devolution, that local areas are the best placed to meet the myriad of challenges that face them. Many commentators have stressed that there is indeed scope for the new mayors to radically improve their cities and towns. Not immediately, and not dramatically perhaps, but over time and in partnership.

Many of the candidates talk about issues beyond their statutory powers – in relation to health and social care for example where the mayor is not taking on any responsibility for them. The new mayors will have soft power as well as direct power – and that could be nearly as significant. Yet it could also be a problem in time – if their influence is not seen as having achieved much.

It is interesting to note that the span of issues contained in the manifestos goes far beyond the statutory role of the Mayor and the combined authority. This underlines the sense that the soft power and convening capacity carried by the Mayor will be significant. Making such pledges with little direct control might be an issue that surfaces when we get to look back at the performance of the first Mayor.

‘It’s the economy stupid’

The government’s expectation is that these new democratic models will be primarily about promoting and managing growth. That their constituent councils and the mayors will be more effective than individual authorities in meeting the challenges of their areas – whether it is unemployment and a lack of skills, poor public transport, little affordable housing, congestion. There will, as the Centre for Cities suggests, need to be quick wins, but also long-term strategy. Several candidates have emphasised their commitment to inclusive growth which must be a key priority – to share the benefits of growth across their areas and to all groups and communities in them.

Our new mayors are clearly not going to be short of advice. Nor are they starting from a blank page.

But this is about democracy first

From my perspective, though, there is a key issue that hasn’t received the attention it deserves – how local people can be effectively engaged in this exciting development. As my colleague, Andrew Walker, rightly says, people in many cities are relatively unaware of big changes that will affect their local areas and they have had little say in shaping them and that “without open dialogue, the decisions made by combined authorities are more likely to be remote and disconnected from the real needs and aspirations of residents and neighbourhoods”.

These new organisations are not the same as LEPs – and as democratic institutions they should reflect the ideal of subsidiarity – nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organisation which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organisation. But to do that they need to be ‘owned’ by the people they represent and to promote their residents’ participation and involvement. Or they could easily fail to meet the aspirations for them and like other structures before them, be abandoned by a future government.

Links to our series of mayoral briefings and election reports

Greater Manchester mayoral election: themes and implications

Devolution and local growth update

Democracy theme page LGiU

LGiU report: Out for the Count – Guide to the local elections 2017

Liverpool City Region mayoral election

Mayoral elections: Tees Valley CA and Peterborough and Cambridgeshire Region CA

Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s Head of Briefings.