What do England's big city regions think of the metro mayor position?

Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham: Labour's candidates to be metro mayors in Liverpool and Manchester respectively. Image: Getty.

Over the past six weeks, the Centre for Cities has held public events in five of the biggest cities in the city regions due to elect their first metro mayors in May 2017: Tees ValleyLiverpool City RegionGreater ManchesterSheffield City Region and the West Midlands.

The events brought together key figures from politics, businesses and universities to discuss with the public what the priorities for each city region should be, drawing on our recent polling of local public opinion. While the conversation was varied and particular to each place, there were three overall reflections that stood out on the metro mayor debate at the local level.

Firstly, the nature of the debate seemed to reflect the progress of each devolution deal.

In Manchester – whose devolution deal has arguably progressed furthest – the debate was focused on what the first Greater Manchester mayor should be prioritising for the city and how they can argue for further powers when in position.

In Liverpool and Tees Valley, however, the debate was about how to ensure the model was right for the area. For example: how will the mayor work for the whole of the city region and reconcile competitive local authority tensions?

In Sheffield and Birmingham, there was more scepticism about the concept of the mayor itself, with attendees questioning whether it suited their city region’s economic and political geographies. In the run up to the elections next year, candidates will need not only to sell voters their vision of the city region but also sell the role itself by engaging with constituents and setting out what could be achieved.

Secondly, there was debate about whether the devolution deals either give mayors too much or too little power.

At all our events there were questions about how far the powers of the directly elected mayors should stretch. Would there be too much power bestowed on a single executive? Or too little to make a difference?

Our polling showed that, in general, the public support giving directly elected mayors who will be accountable to the whole city region more powers than local council leaders. But it is clear that a transparent method of scrutiny would help mitigate fears an individual will have too much power.

As the development of London’s mayor and Greater Manchester’s devolution deal – the latter already in its fourth version – have shown, the mayor’s remit is a set of evolving arrangements in which momentum, visibility and credibility will be central to securing more devolved powers. Therefore the new mayors will need to fully use the formal powers already available, as well as the informal political capital created by a city region-wide mandate.

By displaying competence and capacity to make things happen, combined with the mandate provided by city region-wide elections, mayors will be in a position to make the case for more powers and devolution. But for now, candidates must convince their electorate they can make changes with the powers already available.

Thirdly, the role of the first mayor is not only to use their powers but also build institutional capacity and profile for the position.

In each of the cities we visited the 2017 directly elected mayor will be the city region’s first. They will therefore need to demonstrate the value of the position to the public.

In Sheffield, panellists called for the mayor to match an overall long term vision with a few visible, early wins. This was also a theme in Birmingham, where the first West Midlands mayor was called on to bid for the Commonwealth games to show “what the mayor can do as salesman for the city”. This was as much to build the profile of the position and the city as for the event itself.

In the Tees Valley there was enthusiasm for the first mayor to raise the profile of the position and create capacity to support it. This would mean forming a strong institution within the organisation, making use of existing powers and building staff capacity. It would also mean forging links and relationships outside of city hall, with local partners (businesses, councillors, charities and the public) and Whitehall officials, enabling the mayor to leverage further powers and financing for the city’s priorities.

While public awareness about directly elected mayors is surprisingly high, there is more to be done, and engaging the public over the next year will be crucial. Mayoral candidates need to be raising awareness of the role, its strategic powers, and the practical decisions that will now be made at the city region level.

The emerging candidates in each city region will therefore need to communicate a clear, ambitious vision and credible targets for the city region – in order to succeed not only in the elections, but when they get to City Hall.

Edward Clarke is an analyst at the Centre for Cities.

This article originally appeared on the think tank's blog.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.