England’s metro mayors are leading when Westminster can’t

Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham. Image: Getty.

As national politicians and policymakers devote the lion’s share of their attention and resources to Brexit, it is left to Britain’s city leaders to address many of the economic and social challenges that people in their cities face.

Only two years on from the election of the first metro mayors they are making substantial policy changes in the city-regions on issues ranging from transport to environment to housing. This has long-term consequences for governance in Britain.

For instance, in March, Steve Rotheram launched a UCAS-style apprenticeships portal for the Liverpool City Region named Be More.

Creating a single place to find training opportunities within a local labour market is a good idea and will make it much easier for both workers and employers interested in training to find each other. This is particularly important in Liverpool, which has the fourth highest share of workers with no qualifications of any city in the UK.

Share of working age population with few or no qualifications. Image: Centre for Cities.

The leadership, funding, and electoral mandate of the Liverpool Metro Mayor have given the city some power to tackle its policy priorities. Liverpool City Region no longer has to patiently wait for Whitehall and Westminster to catch a breather from Brexit to spare a bit of time and money for the Mersey. The metro mayor is in charge of improving the local economy and is accountable to local voters on that basis.

This is a much more substantial shift in British politics than most commentators in London appear to realise.

As the mayor of London has changed electoral politics and policy in both Greater London and the wider UK, the metro mayors are now changing how power works in England. Whether it’s leading on skills policy in Liverpool City Region, or green belt reform in Greater Manchester, or the municipalisation of Durham Tees Valley Airport, metro mayors are setting the policy agenda in their city-regions.

The process of devolution is still not complete. The Adult Education budget will in September be devolved to the metro mayors elected in 2017 and the Mayor of London, and is a chance to show how the mayors understand their areas’ local priorities and are ready to take on hard problems. If they can pass this test, it will only bolster their arguments for more autonomy.

The metro mayors have already banded together to call for more powers over taxation. They will need to show they’re prepared for them, but it’s only right that politicians with such large elected mandates should have more control over and freedom to use local revenues.

The constitutional implications of this are exactly what devolution to cities was designed to achieve. Power in England no longer just flows out from London but is met and contested by competing elected mandates in our cities.

How these new metro mayors get new problem-solving powers from national government and convince their voters they are solving those local problems will be the key topics of the metro mayor elections next year – and will continue to be for all their elections after that.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.


Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust