Who will be the first mayor of Merseyside?

Labour's Steve Rotheram: let's be honest, it'll be this guy. Image: Getty.

All eyes are on Andy Burnham as Greater Manchester gears up for its inaugural mayoral election – but down the East Lancs Road, his home county is gearing up for its own contest.

The Liverpool City Region mayoralty encompasses Merseyside’s five local authorities – Liverpool, Knowsley, Sefton, Wirral, St Helens – as well as Halton in Cheshire. All six are firmly under Labour control and Steve Rotheram, the Corbynite MP for Liverpool Walton, is the hot favourite. So what’s going to happen?

Rotheram is likely to win the contest at a canter – it’s eminently possible, but not inevitable, that he’ll win in the first round. (The election will be conducted under the supplementary vote system.)

But he isn’t taking victory for granted. His is an ambitious and extensive manifesto that wrings every last bit of power from the comparatively measly settlement the City Region will get from central government.

The frontrunner

Among them is control over local transport – and, in what may well be a sop to the all important Scouse/CityMetric crossover demographic, Rotheram promises to add to Liverpool’s mini-underground network by re-opening St James’ station, in the up-and-coming Baltic Triangle. He’s pressing ahead with plans for a new station in the city’s burgeoning Knowledge Quarter, too.

An appallingly vandalised Merseyrail map, showing where the new stations would be. 

He also plans to fully integrate Merseyside’s bus services with its rail network if the Bus Services Bill is passed as expected later this year, and also wants to slash toll prices for regular users of the Mersey Tunnels (Liverpool – who knew? – is the only city in Europe without free cross-river travel).

His emphasis on travel is telling, and attests to the electoral wisdom of his “No Borough Left Behind” slogan: he is, at the risk of sounding reductive, Scouser than Scouse. For many voters, especially those in the outer boroughs, Liverpool only matters insofar as it’s the place where they work, study, or perhaps fly from; plenty in Southport and St Helens would take great offence at being branded Scouse. Improving his patch’s already respectable travel infrastructure is the easiest – and electorally lucrative – way for Rotheram to prove that the metro-mayoralty isn’t the Liverpool-centric project it risks being cast as.

A former bricklayer, Rotheram has also pledged to beef up the region’s apprenticeship and training offers, and promises concessionary travel rates for the youngsters who take them up. Which is nice. He’s also demanding Whitehall relocate government agencies – or indeed Channel 4 – to Liverpool. Policies aside, he’s also made much of his close relationship with Andy Burnham and makes the geographically questionable pledge to put Liverpool at the “centre of the Northern Powerhouse”.


The rest

Though Rotheram is likely to win in the first round of the contest, it’d be remiss of us to ignore Lib Dem Carl Cashman, the 25-year-old Knowsley borough councillor snapping at somewhere his heels might have been five minutes ago. Privately, local Lib Dems predict they’ll win somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent of the vote and finish a strong second: their campaign is a predictably pro-EU one, with pledges to maintain the area’s strong economic links with the EU. Liverpool, Sefton, and the Wirral all voted to remain in the EU referendum, and the former two have historically been happy hunting grounds for the Lib Dems (they controlled Liverpool City Council until 2010, and have held Southport’s commons seat since 1997).

And while Rotheram is pledging to leave no borough behind, the Lib Dems hope to tap into a sense of disenchantment with both one-party politics in the region – and a suspicion of the metro mayor model itself. Don’t get too excited, though – he also wants to protect the green belt.

Like the Lib Dems, the Conservatives too boast only one MP across the whole patch – in Weaver Vale, Halton – but are much less hopeful. Their man, Liverpudlian cushion tycoon Tony Caldeira, is essentially a paper candidate, and finished sixth and seventh in the Liverpool mayoral elections in 2016 and 2012 respectively (suggestions that former Tory minister Esther McVey might run came to nothing, and the local party had a real struggle filling the role this time around).

While only two of the 17 MPs in the region are non-Labour, the psephological complexion of the area means this strategy is perhaps less wise than it might seem. As Stephen and I discuss in the latest CityMetric podcast, at least four of those 17 seats are marginals which the Tories could conceivably win at the next election (Southport, Sefton Central, Wirral West and Wirral South). A high-profile run from a big-name candidate might well have boosted their long-term prospects in those seats.

The Greens, meanwhile, are running Tom Crone, a Liverpool city councillor who, like the Lib Dems, is putting questions about democracy and accountability front and centre of his campaign (as well as, predictably, the environment). The party is the official opposition on the council – albeit by virtue of having a whopping four seats – but has a negligible presence in the other boroughs. Local businesswoman Tabitha Norton is standing for the Women’s Equality Party: hers is the only manifesto to prioritise the region’s looming care funding crisis.

What of Ukip in all of this? Despite the permanently audible Merseyside provenance of their leader, Paul Nuttall, it’s unlikely that he’ll run – not least due to the furore over his questionable Hillsborough recollections and the fact that he’d struggle to come fifth. So far, the party has not named a candidate.

 
 
 
 

What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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