Although heralded as a major step towards devolution, question marks remain over whether the UK’s new metro mayors, positioned between urban local authorities and national government, will have the power to bring about change and get things done. It’s therefore useful to look across the Channel to France, where there has been a similar trend towards giving responsibilities to “supra-local” entities.
Metropoles have authority over urban areas and across municipal boundaries. They've seen their powers gradually increase over time to include things like social care, housing and other public services. Although the majority of UK mayoral combined authorities will initially have a more limited remit, focused explicitly on economic development, they will exist in a similarly fragmented political system as the French metropoles.
So how are English metro mayors likely to stack up against their French counterparts when it comes to fulfilling their brief?
The biggest constraint likely to face England’s new metro mayors is a lack of fiscal power. Looking at an entity’s financial autonomy is usually a good indicator of how much power it has and how much it can actually do independently.
In France, metropoles have relatively substantial fiscal autonomy – although specific budgets vary, in general about half of their revenues come from local taxation. This gives metropoles an incentive to foster economic growth and attract firms and residents, as this can have a significant impact on their revenue base.
On this side of the Channel, most of the metro mayors’ funding will be made up of devolved streams and discrete pots, with the precise amounts and their calculations unclear. This could become an issue if funding streams are guaranteed regardless of the city region’s needs and whethermetro mayors delivered results. And the fine line between devolution and delegation from Whitehall is less clear when money is simply handed out.
However, although England’s metro mayors will have less financial autonomy, their role as a single, directly elected representative will give them a large mandate, which brings with it significant informal powers. In France, metropoles are typically governed by a large assembly of 100-150 councillors: that means bureaucracy, elongated decision-making and low overall accountability.
By contrast, English metro mayors will benefit from a higher profile and the fact that they are directly accountable for their actions across the city region. In other words, if they want to be re-elected, metro mayors will have to show evidence of what they have done for their city-region.
Metro mayors’ powers will be counterbalanced by a cabinet constituted of local authorities’ leaders. This type of structure – the leadership of directly accountable mayors, supported and scrutinised by other local leaders – has the potential to offer a more streamlined, goal-driven type of governance when compared to the French Metropoles.
There is however a risk that local leaders could seek to block the decision-making process if they don’t see direct benefits for their authority. Part of the challenge facing metro mayors will be to balance the various interests across their city-regions.
For now, the success of metro mayors will depend on their ability to capitalise on their mandate and visibility to become a leading and influential voice in local politics. But in the future, giving metro mayors more control over local taxation – as the French metropoles do – will ensure they have both the ability to take strategic decisions and the financial incentives needed to drive change across their city.
Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.