Overshadowed by the snap General Election, six city-regions will elect Metro Mayors on May 4th. A new concept for English local government outside of London, will they really improve our leading cities, or create a new layer of bureaucracy and conflict?
A ‘Metro Mayor’ will be the chair of a combined authority that has agreed a devolution deal with central government and must be directly elected, if the combined authority is to get additional powers. Elections use the alternative vote method, where voters cast a first and second choice vote. If no candidate receives 50% of first choice votes, then all but the top two candidates are eliminated. The eliminated candidates votes are then redistributed, where possible, to the remaining candidates according to their second choice vote. The winner is the candidate with the highest combined first and second choice vote total.
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 paved the way for greater devolution of power, allowing more areas to secure increased powers and adopt a London-style directly elected city-region mayor. Some areas already had combined authorities bringing together representatives from each local council, to set strategic objectives for the broader city region and run certain joint functions such as development, transport and waste. The new Act means mayors will gain control of certain central government funding streams for the first time, be able to retain business rates, and Manchester will also take on the policing and fire and rescue service roles.
The road to the metro-mayors has not been universally welcomed or smooth. Greater Manchester has led the way, with the former Chancellor George Osborne championing the Northern Powerhouse in 2014 and moving quickly to secure agreement from the region’s 10 councils. An interim mayor has been in place since 2015, with the first directly elected mayor for Greater Manchester to be elected on May 4th 2017 covering the unitary council areas of Manchester City, Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, and Wigan.
Proposals for East Anglia and the North East floundered after local councils pulled their support. West Yorkshire has been abandoned, following Conservative opposition to the inclusion of rural North Yorkshire districts such as Harrogate and Craven. South Yorkshire’s election has been delayed following a legal challenge which means that areas outside Yorkshire such as Chesterfield and Bassetlaw must be consulted before being included in the region.
However, there will be 5 other metro-mayors elected on May 4th: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (Cambridge, East Cambridge, Fenland, Huntingdonshire and South Cambridgeshire Districts, Peterborough unitary authority and Cambridgeshire County Council); Liverpool City Region (Liverpool; Halton, Knowsley; St Helens; Sefton; Wirral); Tees Valley (Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesborough, Redcar and Cleveland, and Stockton-on-Tees); West of England (Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, and South Gloucestershire); and, West Midlands (Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton).
Metro Mayors will be required to appoint a deputy mayor, who must be a leader of one of the constituent authorities. The Mayor can also devolve functions to their deputy, council leaders or a committee of local councillors. Their work will be monitored by an overview and scrutiny committee, made up of one member from each constituent authority and at least one independent member. A further check on mayoral powers means that a super majority of the combined authority council leaders – typically two-thirds – can reject proposals, including budgets.
The main focus of most mayors is expected to be economic development, looking to attract jobs and visitors and ensure appropriate infrastructure is in place to support growth. In terms of housing, the main powers relate to strategic development and planning, with continued support for institutional build-to-rent expected. No Metro Mayor will have powers to regulate the private rented sector. Not even London, with its particular housing issues and 17 year mayorality, has persuaded Westminster to hand over control. Local councils will continue to direct licensing and enforcement. However, an incoming Metro Mayor may well able to persuade the constituent authorities to align local licensing regimes with common standards and conditions. In some areas this might not be all bad, especially where landlords have to deal with different ‘cross-border’ regimes. Of course, successful mayors are likely to press for their powers to be extended in the future, and housing is likely to be in their sights.
The impact of Metro Mayors for the PRS, therefore, is likely to be felt through development decisions and their ability to carry local authority partners with them. Economic growth, well-planned residential development and improved local transport links will attract investment and people, creating new opportunities for landlords, whilst their ability to manage relationships across local political and geographic boundaries could reshape the regulatory framework for private renting – maybe even for the better.