Andrew Carter: Why Leeds and Sheffield should embrace “Metro Mayors”

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GEORGE Osborne’s Budget heralded the third announcement of a “devolution deal” for a major UK city-region in only a matter of months – as the West Yorkshire Combined Authority joined Greater Sheffield and Greater Manchester in gaining new strategic powers and funding.

However, as with the Sheffield deal, 
the offer on the table for West Yorkshire was substantially watered down compared to the unprecedented agreement struck with their Mancunian neighbours late last year.

The package provided West Yorkshire’s Combined Authority with greater influence over transport, housing, and, importantly in a region where many of its cities have chronically low qualification levels, more powers over skills and support for small businesses.

But the agreement was nonetheless largely regarded by the leaders of the Combined Authority as a “starting point” – and indeed both the Authority’s chairman and the leader of Leeds City Council came out publicly in their disappointment.

When the stakes are so high and the need for economic regeneration in the North of England so great, it is not surprising that the Government’s vision for a “Northern Powerhouse” has incited disagreement between cities across the region about who stands to benefit the most from the devolution and investment it promises.

Many seem to believe that it is Manchester alone that is reaping the rewards of the Chancellor’s ambitions, fearing the city will soon become the “London of the North” – dwarfing its neighbours and becoming the drain on talent and businesses that many like to ascribe to the capital.

But, rather than an indication of favouritism, the Chancellor’s decision to award such substantial powers to Manchester, including sole or dominant influence over transport, skills, health and welfare, should be seen as recognition and reward for a city whose leaders have proven themselves capable of taking the tough decisions, and also committing to a long-term strategic plan that has driven growth and regeneration.

Most significantly, as part of this approach, the 10 individual local authorities have been willing to set aside their differences and work together for the common goal of Greater Manchester’s advancement.

This collaborative working style meant that Greater Manchester was able, albeit reluctantly, to accept the Chancellor’s demands to install a directly-elected mayor. The Chancellor has been very clear about “Metro Mayors” being his preferred model for structural devolution, and has emphasised that any agreements made without this in place will be limited.

His position may seem inflexible, and many have baulked at its perceived imposition, protesting that devolution should be about local determination and choice. But it is sensible.

The current structure and accountability of local government in the UK – even in those areas that currently hold combined authorities – are not currently fit-for-purpose if significant new powers and responsibilities are transferred.

The metro-mayoral model, on the other hand, affords the democratic legitimacy and strategic mandate to enable leaders to take decisions on behalf a broader city-region.

We have seen the benefits of such a system in practice in London – where the Mayor has been able to drive through significant infrastructure and development projects – and in many other cities across the world.

It is understandable that creating the appetite and circumstances to accommodate such fundamental reform can be a difficult and protracted process. And given the legacy of the failed mayoral referenda in Yorkshire in 2012, this will be especially challenging.

But Greater Leeds and Greater Sheffield, and all the other cities in the UK that are now looking at Manchester with envy, should take heed of the Chancellor’s message and seek to 
put partnership and the common good 
at the centre of their devolution ambitions.

Otherwise, they risk missing out on this incredible window of opportunity to comprehensively reshape their relationship with national government, and to build a brighter and more economically buoyant future for their communities – in their own image.

Andrew Carter is acting chief executive of the Centre for Cities think-tank.