Tuesday, 9 May 2017
So at last we finally have our six "metro mayors", elected on Thursday & starting their first week in office. In some ways it seems an age since the first signs of devolution mania gripped the world of wonks (the 1st blog I wrote was in November 2014 in the heady days of "DevoManc"). Since then the fashion for devo has ebbed & flowed, particularly since the EU Referendum result appeared to change everything. However, despite the political shocks of 2016 devo retains its devotees in policy circles, if not the wider populace - although it should be said that the turnout in most of the mayoral elections exceeded (admittedly low) expectations.
& now, as the cliché goes, the hard work begins. The mayors are now in a crucial phase that could define their periods of office & the future for further devolution. Establishing a strong vision, clear targets & early results for their mayoralty must be the priority for all of the victors. But beyond each of the localities, the impact of mayors could be a catalyst for further & greater decentralisation.
As has been noted elsewhere, the success of Conservative candidates has the potential to revive the fervour within central Government lacking since the departure of Osborne & the distancing of Greg Clark. This assumes (& why wouldn't it?) the General Election returns an emboldened Theresa May to Number 10. In particular, Andy Street's success in the West Midlands establishes a Tory figurehead in the most politically & geographically complex Combined Authority, & provides the possibility for a significant alignment of the post-Brexit industrial strategy with a vibrant city region as its testbed. The stakes are high, the challenges are daunting - but the prize of a genuine alternative to centralised power could be at stake.
Alongside reigniting the interest of Whitehall, successful mayoralties can also re-embolden devolutionaries across the country. Beyond the six metro-mayor regions and devo-deal areas such as Cornwall, many potential agreements have fallen apart or been snuffed out. Its difficult to imagine this remaining the case if & when the mayoral effect begins to occur. Adapting & seizing the future prospects for local, place-specific approaches will surely be back on the cards for a variety of areas - be they cities, regions, counties or clusters. Much of the fall out (& fallings out) following the 2015 deadline for proposals centred on clashes over sovereignty, structure & territory; issues that doubtless remain but may be vanquished by examples of mayoral success. Unity of purpose, rather than unity of governance, could once more be the focus.
I remain a devotee. As it happens on Thursday & Friday last week (election day & results day) I was honoured to attend a UK City Futures symposium, hearing speakers from across academia, think tanks, local government & beyond discuss the futures of devolution, industrial strategies & localist approaches. Examples such as Newcastle City Futures highlight the potential for local areas to develop collaborative innovation & practical solutions. Many forward thinking cities are engaged in comparable work - the question is how devolution can catalyse similar approaches in other towns, regions & places that in part make up the "forgotten" (or stifled/stuck) parts of the country? Local futures work, with genuine & comprehensive engagement with place-based scenarios, is essential for this to succeed. & in time, we can look forward to many more mayors, devolution deals & genuine decentralisation to come.