Metro mayors should not be ditched

23 August 2016

There were enough indicators in the speeches given during the (very short-lived) leadership campaign, and then on the steps of Downing Street, that the new Prime Minister would set herself against some of her predecessor’s policies. Early confirmation of this came in her decision to pause the Hinkley Point deal and the trailing of her intention to lift the ban on new grammar schools (and if you’re in any doubt that this is a very bad idea, read this). It was therefore inevitable that the vacuum left by Summer recess would fuel policy speculation.

Yesterday the Times reported that the Prime Minister will not be continuing the push for directly elected regional mayors. Much like the ‘won’t they, will they’ support the Northern Powerhouse stories earlier this month, the claim was swiftly, though half-heartedly, rebutted.

It is suggested that May’s intention to ditch the policy is in part motivated by a desire to thwart big name Labour moderates. I am sure that the “insider” quoted is mistaken – it was, after all, just a month ago that the new Prime Minister informed her Cabinet that “politics is not a game”. It would also seem out of sorts for someone who, as Home Secretary, championed the direct accountability delivered by her introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). In her February speech on the future of PCCs, tellingly entitled Putting people in charge, she argued that “direct democratic accountability through the ballot box has brought real scrutiny, leadership and engagement to local policing in a way that never existed before.”

The experience of PCCs can inform the Prime Minister’s decision on metro mayors. They replaced opaque and often underperforming police authorities. PCCs are generally much more visible, their decision-making more open and, crucially, they are directly accountable to the public that the police serve. The best (but by no means all) have provided focused leadership to drive real change against local priorities.

These are key arguments in favour of metro mayors. A single, high profile leader who can cut through the protracted decision-making and bureaucratic committees that too often characterise local government. An individual who is visible and openly accountable.

An evaluation two years after the introduction of an elected Mayor in Bristol found “clear and dramatic” improvements in perceptions of leadership in the city – almost 70 per cent of citizens felt Bristol has visible leadership after the Mayor was introduced, compared to 24 per cent previously; and 54 per cent felt the Mayor had improved the city’s leadership. There was also a 21 per cent increase in the proportion of citizens who felt it was clear who was responsible for decision-making at the council, although there were very small declines in clarity on who citizens should approach with concerns about local issues. These findings seem to validate the importance of “putting a face to the place” identified by the Warwick Commission in their report on elected mayors.

Perhaps the most important lesson from PCCs, however, is from their limitations. Firstly, they have no control over, for example, mental health provision, yet mental ill health is a significant driver of police demand. Their commissioning powers do not stretch to prison places or probation services. Likewise, they have no direct say in children or adult social services, public health, employment or housing policy. This is precisely why May’s February speech outlined her intention to extend PCC powers. But the real opportunity is in combining the roles of PCC and metro mayor as will be the case in Greater Manchester. This enables siloes to be broken, budgets pooled and cultural barriers pulled down.

Secondly, in some areas the geographical boundaries of PCCs is a limiting factor. There has long been debate about the virtues or otherwise of police force mergers, and questions are being asked about the most appropriate level for different police functions to be organised (local, regional, national). In addition, PCC boundaries rarely overlay neatly those of other public services.

Here there is clearly a trade-off between local and regional representation, but such leadership roles can deliver the greatest value when focused on strategic decision-making, which requires powers spanning appropriate areas. As the Warwick Commission argues: “there is no point electing a mayor whose remit does not cover the necessarily boundary-spanning regions that could foster economic growth.” Hyperlocal representation can still be provided by ward-level councillors, if desired. Getting the regional geographies right is, of course, a separate challenge.

Metro mayors therefore have the potential to provide the transformative leadership needed to deliver high-performing public services and economic growth in a globally competitive world. But that means ensuring exceptional people stand, regardless of political affiliation. This is one issue on which May should not break with the past. Our regions deserve more.

Charlotte Pickles, Deputy Director and Head of Research, Reform



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