So which English cities are actually getting devolution deals?

Steve Roteram and Andy Burnham, Labour's candidates for mayors of the Liverpool and Manchester city regions. Image: Getty.

This May, an indeterminate number of English cities, city regions and other combined authorities will elect their first metro mayors.

These mayors won’t be powerful local bosses on the American or European model – but like London’s Sadiq Khan, they will be able to promote their region, and will have a hand in tricky things like local infrastructure development. It’s quite possibly the biggest change to English municipal government in 40 years or so.

You might think then, that, four months out, we’d be able to tell you exactly how many of these new mayors there were going to be, and which cities they’d be representing. You would be wrong: while the government has been very enthusiastic in putting out press releases every time a deal is agreed, it’s tended to be less forthcoming when, with distressing frequency, they’ve collapsed once again.

But the clock is ticking, so – with a little help from Ed Clarke at the Centre for Cities – we decided it was time we started keeping track of what was going on. This week, we’re doing our best to answer an unexpectedly difficult question: which areas are actually getting mayors?

Absolutely probably definitely

First up, there are three big conurbations that are all but certain to hold elections this May.

Greater Manchester is by far the most coherent city region in England outside Greater London. Its 10 boroughs are used to working together and so, with a little help from former chancellor George Osborne, it has the most advanced and powerful deal. (At some points over the last couple of years, in fact, it’s looked plausible it might be the only deal.)

Most of the major parties have now picked their candidates for this one. The runaway favourite must be Labour’s Andy Burnham: Manchester is traditionally a left-leaning area, and Burnham is a much bigger figure than the Tory candidate, Trafford’s 29 year old leader Sean Anstee. That said, if I were forced to name a party and a politician capable of losing an apparently guaranteed election, “Labour, Andy Burnham” would be near the top of the list.

More certain in electoral terms is the Liverpool City Region (the five boroughs that once made up Merseyside, plus Halton, from Cheshire). That area is so red it would be mind-blowing if Labour's Steve Rotheram didn’t win this one.

The more interesting political tension here is actually likely to be between Rotheram as metro mayor and Joe Anderson, the existing Labour mayor of Liverpool, who failed to get the party’s nomination for the region-wide job (either because he’s not left-wing enough, or because the outer boroughs didn’t want someone from Liverpool-proper). In theory, the metro mayor is the bigger job. But at least some the power in these roles comes from their bully-pulpit function, and “mayor of Liverpool” is frankly the much better job title. This’ll be fun to watch, is what I’m saying here.

Last but not least there’s the West Midlands deal (call it Greater Birmingham at your peril). This covers the old metropolitan county: the three cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry, plus four other suburban boroughs.

Electorally this will be by far the most interesting, as it genuinely could go either way. Labour’s Siôn Simon is facing Andy Street, the Conservative former boss of John Lewis – and because the Tories might actually win, the government is likely to throw everything at it. Were I betting man, my money would be on Street. We’ll see.


Definitely maybe

Then there are three deals that are receiving much less attention, because the areas they cover are smaller, and so the candidates are likely to be more obscure.

The Tees Valley – Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and so forth. This lot used to be the made-up county of Cleveland, make up a pretty coherent region, and the deal is probably going ahead.

Then there’s the West of England deal: Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire. Like the Tees Valley one this was once a non-traditional county (Avon), but it’s lost a bit: North Somerset, which dropped out last summer. The deal will probably go ahead, but the fact not all the Avon councils wanted to play suggests a measure of fragility, as well as the tension between a Labour-voting city and its Conservative commuter belt.

Lastly there’s an area which isn’t a city region at all: Peterborough & Cambridgeshire. Despite talk, this is the only non-metropolitan region likely to get a mayor. That means it’s the only one that’s almost certain to elect a Tory next May.

There’s no reason to think these deals won’t happen – except that sometimes deals collapse over local issues that the rest of us aren’t really aware of until the last minute. Also, because they’re less visible, there’s less momentum: it’s hard to imagine the government abandoning the Liverpool deal at this point; it’s quite plausible it could abandon the Bristol and Bath one.

Even if they do go ahead, these mayors are likely to be less influential figures than those of the big city regions, in terms of both their legal powers, and their effective influence.

The big question mark

There’s one area where it’s genuinely hard to tell what’s happening. The Sheffield City Region was one of the first deals to get a green light, probably because of the support of then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

But it’s remained fairly tormented ever since. The deal at one stage involved councils from three counties (South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire), so there was a row over how the financing would work. Many of the regions’ politicians demanded the extra powers and funding on offer without bothering to elect a mayor, which delayed things, further. And, inevitably there’s the “thou shalt not divide Yorkshire” lobby mucking things up, too.

At any rate, we’re four months out, and it’s not clear if the region is even getting a mayor, or who would run in the election if it did. The smart money has to be on no deal, but who knows.

Never gonna happen – or at least, not this year

And finally, a brief list of the fallen.

The North East – Big regional deal, collapsed after those councils south of the Tyne pulled out because they didn’t want a mayor. It briefly looked like there would be a north-bank-only deal, until someone realised that a metropolitan authority that included Newcastle but not Gateshead would be stupid, and the whole thing went away.

Greater Lincolnshire - “Dead, buried and will not be resurrected”, according to one local big wig.

Norfolk & Suffolk - Died after half a dozen councils pulled out.

D2N2 – Derbyshire/Derby/Notthinghamshire/Nottingham. This one’s gone suspiciously quiet but seems unlikely to happen.

Yorkshire – The demand from rural Tories for a Yorkshire-wide deal probably killed off any chance of a Leeds City Region, and may have ultimately helped finish off Sheffield too. Nonetheless, there doesn’t look likely to be a Yorkshire deal any time soon either, so well done there.

That, best we can tell, is where things stand – but, as I said at the top of this thing, there’s surprisingly little transparency surrounding this entire process. If you know better, honk.

Thanks to Ed Clarke, the Centre for Cities and the good people of Twitter for their help on this.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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