The ‘Metro Mayors’ have arrived in the North, but where did they come from and why are they here? I went to Greater Manchester to find out.
On 4 May 2017, voters in seven metropolitan areas of England went out to vote for a mayor to represent them, and to wield power handed down from central government.
But how did we get here?
In each of these seven areas, the local councils had joined together to make ‘combined authorities’, with the intention of dealing with issues that affected them all, and everyone in their ‘city region’.
The David Cameron government recognised the desire of these combined authorities to take on more responsibility, and the will of the people to have decisions that affect them made closer to home.
However, the government wanted more accountability to accompany these new powers.
And so, devolution deals were struck with these seven combined authorities, whereby they received more powers, but they would have to be chaired by a directly elected mayor.
As you are now caught up with where these mayors come from, let’s delve into what they actually do.
With Greater Manchester’s history of devolution, it seems like the appropriate place to learn the ropes.
If you’ve been following politics for the last few years, then chances are you’ve heard of Greater Manchester’s metro mayor; Andy Burnham.
After stints as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Culture Secretary, and Health Secretary, plus two unsuccessful attempts to become leader of the Labour Party, Andy Burnham decided to abandon the bright lights of Westminster for a new job ‘up North’.
He defeated the interim Mayor, Tony Lloyd, to become the Labour Party candidate, and then won the mayoral election with 63 per cent of the vote.
In his victory speech, he referenced one of the main roles of the mayor, to speak for the residents of the city region that elected him, saying: “Wherever you live, whether you voted for me or not, it doesn’t matter, I will be a mayor for you, for the people, as your voice for all of Greater Manchester.”
Unfortunately, the first major opportunity for Mr Burnham to fulfil this role came after the Manchester Arena bombing on 22 May.
It fell to Andy Burnham to offer condolences to the families that had lost loved ones in the blast and to answer the questions of the international news crews that flocked to Manchester.
The idea of one person speaking for a whole region was new to the North, but was well established in London.
This was something that Tony Lloyd believed had been missing from Greater Manchester, an identifiable individual to speak for the region.
“Say, ‘who is it that represents London?’ and everybody knew that Ken Livingstone had been the Mayor, Boris Johnson then was the Mayor, and Sadiq Khan was on his way to being the Mayor”, the MP for Rochdale said.
He went on to praise this slimline approach, saying: “You can invite the Mayor to a meeting, you can’t invite the ten leaders of Greater Manchester to a meeting in quite the same way.”
Mr Lloyd is in a unique position, having served as interim Mayor of Greater Manchester from May 2015 to May 2017, after being chosen by the ten Greater Manchester council leaders.
Whilst this was a temporary arrangement until the first election on 4 May, Mr Lloyd still carried out the duties of the Mayor.
For example, he represented Greater Manchester on the world stage, including at a climate change conference in Paris and a Vatican organised conference on climate change and human trafficking.
“So, both important issues, and important to be able to represent Greater Manchester and talk about the undoubted advances that we had made in those areas”, Mr Lloyd said.
He also welcomed the fact that at the Paris conference, he stood shoulder to shoulder with the Mayors of New York, Paris and Rome, saying: “That’s both good in terms of projecting the image and self-confidence of Greater Manchester.”
When I asked him if he had any advice for Andy Burnham, he said: “My advice is probably simple really, you can encapsulate it like this: yes, be great, be ambitious, because Greater Manchester is a great place, and with that kind of leadership we can motor ahead and be demanding of central government, because we have probably been too weak in the past.
“But also, always be conscious of the fact that, as a leader, you are first amongst equals, not only the first, and so make sure you are keeping other people with you, and sometimes that means compromise.”
He believes that the Mayor’s flagship policy of ending rough sleeping by 2020 is unachievable, as he has neither the powers nor the money necessary.
I visited homeless charity Bolton Emmaus, and asked Tony Stephenson about their work, the scale of homelessness, and Andy Burnham.
Cllr. Anstee also argues that Mr Burnham has scaled back his pledge to provide free bus passes to 16-18 year olds in Greater Manchester, settling at only halving their fares.
The Trafford leader serves as Mr Burnham’s ‘Lead for Skills, Employment, and Apprenticeships’, although he is quick to point out that all ten of the Council leaders must be included in the Mayor’s cabinet, regardless of his opinions of them.
Despite being the only Conservative in the cabinet, Cllr. Anstee does not feel isolated, saying: “It is absolutely true, the Labour leaders have discussions in private, but I genuinely cannot describe how we can appear to have this insane ability to find a resolution to whatever issue it is, and that’s genuinely, where we are headed.”
He believes that they all agree on creating more jobs, moving away from a low pay economy, and improving transport, saying: “You know, all that sort of stuff, there is no party-political disagreement about it.
“There might be a bit of a debate about how you get there, and that’s where we discuss quite a lot.”
I asked Cllr. Anstee whether he is worried about the Mayor becoming too powerful, and he replied: “No, because I helped write the deal, and it will never be that case.
“We put adequate protections in place to make sure that everybody was able to feel included.”
Only time will tell whether this comradeship will last and whether Andy Burnham will be able to fulfil his promises.