So which English cities are actually getting devolution deals?

Steve Roteram and Andy Burnham, Labour's candidates for mayors of the Liverpool and Manchester city regions. Image: Getty.

This May, an indeterminate number of English cities, city regions and other combined authorities will elect their first metro mayors.

These mayors won’t be powerful local bosses on the American or European model – but like London’s Sadiq Khan, they will be able to promote their region, and will have a hand in tricky things like local infrastructure development. It’s quite possibly the biggest change to English municipal government in 40 years or so.

You might think then, that, four months out, we’d be able to tell you exactly how many of these new mayors there were going to be, and which cities they’d be representing. You would be wrong: while the government has been very enthusiastic in putting out press releases every time a deal is agreed, it’s tended to be less forthcoming when, with distressing frequency, they’ve collapsed once again.

But the clock is ticking, so – with a little help from Ed Clarke at the Centre for Cities – we decided it was time we started keeping track of what was going on. This week, we’re doing our best to answer an unexpectedly difficult question: which areas are actually getting mayors?

Absolutely probably definitely

First up, there are three big conurbations that are all but certain to hold elections this May.

Greater Manchester is by far the most coherent city region in England outside Greater London. Its 10 boroughs are used to working together and so, with a little help from former chancellor George Osborne, it has the most advanced and powerful deal. (At some points over the last couple of years, in fact, it’s looked plausible it might be the only deal.)

Most of the major parties have now picked their candidates for this one. The runaway favourite must be Labour’s Andy Burnham: Manchester is traditionally a left-leaning area, and Burnham is a much bigger figure than the Tory candidate, Trafford’s 29 year old leader Sean Anstee. That said, if I were forced to name a party and a politician capable of losing an apparently guaranteed election, “Labour, Andy Burnham” would be near the top of the list.

More certain in electoral terms is the Liverpool City Region (the five boroughs that once made up Merseyside, plus Halton, from Cheshire). That area is so red it would be mind-blowing if Labour's Steve Rotheram didn’t win this one.

The more interesting political tension here is actually likely to be between Rotheram as metro mayor and Joe Anderson, the existing Labour mayor of Liverpool, who failed to get the party’s nomination for the region-wide job (either because he’s not left-wing enough, or because the outer boroughs didn’t want someone from Liverpool-proper). In theory, the metro mayor is the bigger job. But at least some the power in these roles comes from their bully-pulpit function, and “mayor of Liverpool” is frankly the much better job title. This’ll be fun to watch, is what I’m saying here.

Last but not least there’s the West Midlands deal (call it Greater Birmingham at your peril). This covers the old metropolitan county: the three cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry, plus four other suburban boroughs.

Electorally this will be by far the most interesting, as it genuinely could go either way. Labour’s Siôn Simon is facing Andy Street, the Conservative former boss of John Lewis – and because the Tories might actually win, the government is likely to throw everything at it. Were I betting man, my money would be on Street. We’ll see.


Definitely maybe

Then there are three deals that are receiving much less attention, because the areas they cover are smaller, and so the candidates are likely to be more obscure.

The Tees Valley – Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and so forth. This lot used to be the made-up county of Cleveland, make up a pretty coherent region, and the deal is probably going ahead.

Then there’s the West of England deal: Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire. Like the Tees Valley one this was once a non-traditional county (Avon), but it’s lost a bit: North Somerset, which dropped out last summer. The deal will probably go ahead, but the fact not all the Avon councils wanted to play suggests a measure of fragility, as well as the tension between a Labour-voting city and its Conservative commuter belt.

Lastly there’s an area which isn’t a city region at all: Peterborough & Cambridgeshire. Despite talk, this is the only non-metropolitan region likely to get a mayor. That means it’s the only one that’s almost certain to elect a Tory next May.

There’s no reason to think these deals won’t happen – except that sometimes deals collapse over local issues that the rest of us aren’t really aware of until the last minute. Also, because they’re less visible, there’s less momentum: it’s hard to imagine the government abandoning the Liverpool deal at this point; it’s quite plausible it could abandon the Bristol and Bath one.

Even if they do go ahead, these mayors are likely to be less influential figures than those of the big city regions, in terms of both their legal powers, and their effective influence.

The big question mark

There’s one area where it’s genuinely hard to tell what’s happening. The Sheffield City Region was one of the first deals to get a green light, probably because of the support of then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

But it’s remained fairly tormented ever since. The deal at one stage involved councils from three counties (South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire), so there was a row over how the financing would work. Many of the regions’ politicians demanded the extra powers and funding on offer without bothering to elect a mayor, which delayed things, further. And, inevitably there’s the “thou shalt not divide Yorkshire” lobby mucking things up, too.

At any rate, we’re four months out, and it’s not clear if the region is even getting a mayor, or who would run in the election if it did. The smart money has to be on no deal, but who knows.

Never gonna happen – or at least, not this year

And finally, a brief list of the fallen.

The North East – Big regional deal, collapsed after those councils south of the Tyne pulled out because they didn’t want a mayor. It briefly looked like there would be a north-bank-only deal, until someone realised that a metropolitan authority that included Newcastle but not Gateshead would be stupid, and the whole thing went away.

Greater Lincolnshire - “Dead, buried and will not be resurrected”, according to one local big wig.

Norfolk & Suffolk - Died after half a dozen councils pulled out.

D2N2 – Derbyshire/Derby/Notthinghamshire/Nottingham. This one’s gone suspiciously quiet but seems unlikely to happen.

Yorkshire – The demand from rural Tories for a Yorkshire-wide deal probably killed off any chance of a Leeds City Region, and may have ultimately helped finish off Sheffield too. Nonetheless, there doesn’t look likely to be a Yorkshire deal any time soon either, so well done there.

That, best we can tell, is where things stand – but, as I said at the top of this thing, there’s surprisingly little transparency surrounding this entire process. If you know better, honk.

Thanks to Ed Clarke, the Centre for Cities and the good people of Twitter for their help on this.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.