There was no shortage of frustration, but also plenty of energy and drive in evidence in Liverpool at a MetroPolis-sponsored ‘in-conversation’ event with the Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region Mayors.
Hosted by the IPPR North think-tank, and ably chaired by their director Sarah Longlands, Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham set out their ambitions for the wider devolution agenda.
Professor Chris Fox from MetroPolis at Manchester Metropolitan University kicked off the event with a summary of the challenges.
Firstly, devolution deals are drawing power and resources down from Westminster and into city regions but, conversely there is also a risk that they suck up the energy and autonomy of local, community-based groups.
Secondly, for the first time there is a welcome emphasis on place in the government’s industrial strategy. But how many levers does the current devolved administration have to make the necessary changes? Does the question ultimately come down to power again?
Thirdly, over the last 20 years headline crime figures have fallen: the so-called ‘crime drop’, but new crime challenges are emerging. Either through their direct responsibilities or wider areas of influence Metro Mayors have the potential to bring together a wide range of services to develop innovative solutions to the new crime challenges. How will they do this and ensure that the crime drop isn’t reversed at a time of police cut backs and concerns about the levels of funding to deliver neighbourhood policing?
Within those challenges is a neat balance of the limits and the opportunities for Mayors. A summary of their powers, but also their limitations. The conversation that followed reflected that. Optimism, to frustration, and a sense of the interplay between ideas, evidence and pragmatism that is the reality of devolution, but most importantly a sense of how the personalities of Burnham and Rotherham and their raw determination make devolution work day-by-day.
Rotheram pointed to his mission of ‘no borough left behind’. Distributing cultural funds beyond just the centre of Liverpool and funding capacity for local neighbourhoods to develop masterplans for failing town centres. Similarly Burnham pointed towards his imminent approval of a Mayoral Development Corporation in Stockport to guide economic development, but with local control.
Then there’s also an irritation with Labour’s lack of buy-in for the city-region mayoral agenda. Burnham didn’t hold back, he said it was wrong for there to be no role on the platform at the main conference for Rotheram as the Labour Mayor of the host city region. That’s the very least he could politely chime up about, but nor there was no place for him, London’s Sadiq Khan or Dan Jarvis, or the more recently elected Mayor of the Sheffield City Region.
But he added: “I’ve heard good noises. There is a growing sense that you can get credibility for the kinds of policies we’re implementing. We can be outriders for a future national government. We can end rough sleeping, for example.”
But the optimism they both displayed begins to show fairly acutely when they talk about their early successes and the new kind of policy crafting they’re getting to grips with, and to which they hope others will follow. “We’ve got a blank sheet of paper and if we make a success of it, then others are more likely to come on board.”
Burnham: “We don’t just want to do our own thing here in the North West, we want to bring the whole of the North with us,” citing September’s Convention for the North in Newcastle as an important cross-party first step for real action and direction.
Rotheram highlighted the summer of chaos on the railways in the North, saying: “This would be all over the national news if it was happening in London. Instead it’s me and him saying to ‘failing Grayling’ that you’re not on.” He adds that it’s another area of policy where the North can do things better by integrating transport at a local level.
Where the Mayors go next for a wave of future devolution deals is going to be a tricky subject for them both, as they acknowledged. Burnham made a bold case in a speech in September that devolving power could be the solution to the chaos that Brexit is causing to government machinery.
In the US we have seen how individual States have driven forward progressive agendas in areas such as the environment and trade in the face of regressive and populist Federal policies. Will the Northern Metro Mayors do the same in England?