Although the formal powers bequeathed to metro mayors are still relatively limited, examples to the east and west of Yorkshire – in the form of Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, and Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham respectively – illustrate what can be achieved through a mayor’s so-called “soft power”.
The first 100 days of any leader’s tenure can define their ultimate success. As such, it’s crucial that whoever is elected hits the ground running, establishing their credibility not only with the electorate, but with the business community.
Businesses in West Yorkshire are the powerhouse of our economy and failure to understand the issues faced by businesses large and small will come at a cost to our post-pandemic recovery. All of the mayoral candidates have pledged to listen to business and the private sector will have a seat at the Mayoral Combined Authority board table via the Leeds City Region LEP chair, Roger Marsh.
This is encouraging: with the Combined Authority estimating the region’s Covid-19 recovery bill at around £15bn, effective collaboration between the public and private sectors is the only way to ensure that we emerge strongly from the worst economic crisis in living memory.
An immediate challenge the Mayor will face is establishing their profile. Without this, it will be much harder to build the alliances they will rely on to fulfil their manifesto commitments.
However, turnout has been low in every mayoral election outside London to date and, according to polling data by the Centre for Cities think-tank, only 4 per cent of West Yorkshire voters can currently name any one of their mayoral candidates. To win over voters and businesses, the Mayor must communicate a clear vision that people in the region can get behind and then demonstrate early action.
West Yorkshire has seen inward investment grow substantially in recent years and, as a key figurehead, the Mayor can build on this success to attract new firms.
The Spring Budget sent clear signals that the Northern Powerhouse centre of gravity has shifted from west to east under a Chancellor with Yorkshire roots. Ben Houchen and the Tees Valley have been particular beneficiaries of recent government investment and businesses in Yorkshire will be hoping that our region reaps similar rewards, irrespective of which party’s mayoral candidate triumphs.
The Mayor will need to position themselves as someone who can do business with a Conservative Government, while also forging firm partnerships with the region’s Labour-led councils.
It’s often said that Leeds is the largest city in Europe without a mass transit system. The devolution deal provides access to funding that could finally see mass transit happen, connecting not just Leeds but Bradford, Wakefield and other parts of West Yorkshire as well.
With the Government’s Integrated Rail Plan expected shortly after the May elections, businesses will also expect the Mayor to join calls for major national rail investments – notably the HS2 eastern leg and Northern Powerhouse Rail with a city centre stop in Bradford – to move forward at pace, so that our region can feel the benefits as quickly as possible.
The West Yorkshire Mayor will arrive at a critical time for our region and whoever is elected on May 6 will play a central role in the region’s recovery and future success. Like all businesses, we look forward to working with them and playing our part in the region’s Covid recovery.