How powerful will the UK’s new metro mayors be?

A mayor (left) stands in front of a former power station. This article is about mayors and powers. Look, it was this or another town hall, okay? Image: Getty.

Before Christmas, I attended a meeting at Sheffield council, examining the detail of their city-region Devolution Deal. Although generally positive regarding the prospect of more powers being wielded locally, councillors and residents alike were particularly concerned to know more about the specific powers of the proposed city-region mayor – how they would be elected, for how long, and how, between elections, that figure would be held accountable.

These questions are being asked across combined authorities that have agreed deals so far. And while the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill contains some of the answers, some of the detail will need to be finalised at a local level.

So, what do we know so far? And what does it mean for how effective these new city-region mayors are likely to be?

What powers will UK city-region mayors wield?

City-region mayors will chair their combined authority, and must appoint a fellow member of the combined authority to serve as his or her deputy. Mayoral terms will last four years, and elections will be conducted on a simple majority system, unless there are three or more candidates, in which case the mayor will be returned under the supplementary vote system (where voters issue a first and second preference).

The Cities Bill essentially grants the power to the communities secretary to stipulate which powers should be taken on by the city-region mayor (as opposed to the combined authority of an area generally, or individual local councils). The agreements that have been struck to date set out that city-region mayors will take responsibility for new powers and budgets relating to transport, housing, planning and policing.

But in part this will be determined by the specific content of the devolution deals agreed with individual city-regions, and the drafting of new constitutions for mayoral combined authorities in 2016. With the permission of the secretary of state, the city-region mayor may also delegate specific responsibilities or functions to individual members of their combined authority too.

“City-region mayors will face far greater levels of scrutiny than the mayor of London currently does”

This mix of powers and delegated functions is particularly important when thinking about how these new arrangements can support economic growth across the city-region. After all, one of the primary benefits of the city-region mayoral model should be the mayor’s ability to effectively prioritise investments, and coordinate policy interventions, across the wider city-region economy.

It is therefore vital that, as deals progress, government remains resolute that new city-region mayors retain ultimate responsibility for the key drivers of economic growth in their area.

What about checks and balances on those powers?

The members of the combined authority will play an important role in scrutinising the city-region mayor, and providing oversight regarding their decisions.

In Greater Manchester, which has progressed furthest in setting out the detail of their devolved governance arrangements, it’s clear that the city-region mayor will be required to consult the combined authority cabinet on their strategies, which may be rejected if two-thirds of the members agree to do so. The combined authority cabinet will also examine the Mayor’s spending plans and will be able to amend their plans, again if two-thirds of the members agree to do so.

Critically, the Greater Manchester Deal states that the “Statutory Spatial Framework” should be approved by a unanimous vote of the combined authority cabinet. Similar proposals have been included in other devolution deals agreed so far.

Clearly there remains more work to be done to finalise how these arrangements will work in practice. But it is apparent that city-region mayors will face far greater levels of scrutiny, and a far greater need to work collaboratively with existing local authority leaders, than (for example) the mayor of London currently does. Indeed, under the proposed arrangements, despite their broader mandate, new city-region mayors will in some senses be acting as “the first among equals” locally, rather than as a “city-region chief executive”.

“Gridlock could ensue between mayors and other combined-authority members”

This may reassure some of those concerned about the creation of all-powerful mayors – but it should also give us pause for thought. One of the primary benefits of the city-region mayoral model should be the ability to take effective decisions for the city-region as a whole. There is a risk that, under current proposals “gridlock” could ensue between city-region mayors and other combined authority members – particularly in areas that are not politically homogenous or where strong working relationships have not been developed over many decades. Checks and balances are of course important, but they must not be implemented in a way which would overly constrain the ability of new city-region mayors to take important strategic decisions for their place.

The importance of powerful city-region mayors

When one thinks about big city mayors, the likes of New York’s de Blasio, Paris’ Hidalgo and London’s Boris spring to mind. But the powers that each of these figures wield differs significantly, with the mayor of London standing out as significantly weaker than his international counterparts. In practice, as things stand, new city-region mayors across the UK could be weaker still.

In part that’s because there remains a dynamic within devolution discussions that mayors are “the price areas have had to pay” in order to access new powers – a phrase I heard several times, not just in Sheffield, but across a range of cities during 2015.

This is understandable, given the “deal” based nature of devolution in the UK. But it is critical that government and local authorities don’t allow this sentiment to be translated into new combined authority constitutions that blunt the effectiveness of the mayoral model itself.

Ben Harrison is director of partnerships at the Centre for Cities.

This is an edited version of an article originally posted on the think tank's blog


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.