What can the new French Metropoles teach us about English metro mayors?

France's new metropolitan regions. Image courtesy of the government of France.

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.


Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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