Will metro mayors be powerful enough to get things done?

Siôn Simon, Andy Burnham, Steve Rotherham: next year's metro mayors? Image: National Archive (Simon)/Getty (Burnham & Rotherham).

We now know Labour’s mayoral candidates for Manchester (Andy Burnham), Liverpool (Steve Rotheram) and West Midlands (Sion Simon).

Over the next year, they and potential competing candidates, like Jeremy Middleton (running as an independent in the North East) and Andy Street (rumoured to be considering running in the West Midlands) will have the task of not just selling their vision to the electorate, but promoting the role of mayor itself. To engage the public, the candidates must show what the mayor can do with their new powers to improve their lives.

We polled residents in six of the largest cities outside of London that will be electing their first metro mayors in May. There is clear support in each city for handing their directly elected mayor more powers than local councillors. But after holding events in the same cities, it was clear that questions remained around how to secure a strong yet accountable executive.

The 2017 cohort of metro mayors will be expected to deliver significant change with a portfolio of powers, but with limited budgets and substantial challenges. So will the mayors have the powers to make these tough decisions and improve the way their cities work?

The new metro mayors’ strategy and budget decisions will be made after consulting with the combined authority cabinet – made up of the constituent authority leaders in their city region. The cabinet will review the metro mayors’ spending plans, and can amend or reject policies if in a two thirds majority – a model that ensures that councillors will retain influence over strategic decisions.

The mayor will choose their cabinet from council leaders: councillors elected to lead their local council by their colleagues. This ensures that the elected councillors have influence over city-wide decisions and strategic investments.

However, councillors are accountable to a much smaller local electorate within the city region. They face being “punished” for ratifying decisions that benefit the city as a whole, but go against the interest of their electorate. They also might not always have the best experience or skill set to fit their city region cabinet position.

These limitations afford the new metro mayors less executive power than the London Mayoral model. While Sadiq Khan must work closely with the 32 boroughs across the capital to enact decisions and investments, he is ultimately held to account by the London Assembly. The London Mayor can also hire his own senior team, blending skill sets and experiences to suit the responsibilities of different directorates.

In contrast, the metro mayor model in the other city regions restricts the important personnel decisions that help mayors achieve their vision. Being accountable to the combined authority will also affect the decisions the new mayors can make.

However, lessons from the first four terms of mayoral government in London show that the mayor’s power and influence is not limited by their formal powers, and can grow over time. Some of the biggest decisions and policy changes that London Mayors have been associated with since 2000 did not actually fall within the formal powers handed down to them. For example, Ken Livingston championed the capital’s bid to host the Olympics and introducing the Congestion Charge, while Boris Johnson secured support for Crossrail 2. None of these initiatives were within their formal remit – they used their profile and a constructive relationship with central government to make things happen.

In addition, over the last 16 years, the GLA and mayor of London have used these successes, the profile of the office, and the size of their democratic mandate to secure many new powers – over housing, planning, skills and more.

To meet their ambitious visions for their city, the new mayors will need to go beyond their formal powers. This will require them to make the most of the complex web of local and national governance networks to deliver for their city. In time, their successes will help make the case for more powers to be devolved. But from the start, the new directly elected mayors will need to start forging key relationships and taking the tough decisions to get things done.

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.