Millions of people in England will go to the polls in less than two months to elect the first mayors in six combined authorities - at least that is what the government is hoping.
For those in cities such as Bristol and Liverpool, electing a mayor should seem like second nature. It is only a year since they last chose a city mayor. For voters in Birmingham, Cambridge, Stockport and elsewhere, it will be the first time they have elected a local figurehead with such power and prestige.
But does anybody care? With just weeks to go, interest in the elections is such that they could turn into an embarrassing anti-climax. Then again, if people can be persuaded of their importance, the elections could herald a rebirth of local democracy that takes power away from Westminster and delivers it to a new breed of civic leaders.
Most attention is likely to be focussed on Greater Manchester, where Andy Burnham is one of two Labour MPs hoping to make the switch from Parliament to a mayoral post. The other is Steve Rotherham, who is standing in the Liverpool City region.
Greater Manchester is not only the most interesting contest because of Burnham. It also boasts the most extensive devolution deal, with responsibility for health as well as services such as social care, transport and planning.
Among those standing against Burnham is Sean Anstee, leader of Trafford Council, the only Conservative-controlled borough in Greater Manchester. His accepts interest in the elections could be greater, and hopes the message that Westminster has ‘failed people for many generations’ will bring people out to vote.
In addition to taking charge of a combined £6bn health and social care budget last year, the combined authority is running its own version of the Work Programme, linking people’s job prospects to health and housing. Devolution, adds Anstee, places control over more services in the hands of local people.
‘It’s an opportunity to be different, something more than we are today,’ he says. ‘It’s important that people have a choice over who leads the region.’ Burnham says it is up to politicians to ensure people can be bothered to vote. In the same way as the EU referendum showed dissatisfaction with Westminster politics, regional mayors can demonstrate the benefits of alternative-style governance.
‘Although devolution wasn’t conceived as part of the answer to Brexit, it has to be embraced as such,’ he says. ‘The key is to remember that this isn’t just shuffling the deckchairs. These are powers drawn from Westminster and constructed at regional level.’
Devolution deals struck in Greater Manchester and other regions were dependent upon the combined authorities agreeing to the election of so-called ‘metro mayors’. They were also part of the government’s desire for a Northern Powerhouse, which appears to have dropped down the political agenda.
But along the M62 in Liverpool, there is a feeling the more limited powers negotiated by the region may leave electors feeling short-changed. There is nothing radical to shout about on health, or welfare policy. ‘Manchester has a better deal than us,’ admits Carl Cashman, a borough councillor in Knowsley and Lib Dem candidate for the mayoral post.
In addition, some voters are likely to be confused by the fact the city of Liverpool has elected its own mayor since 2012, and has a ceremonial mayor. In spite of this apparent surplus of mayors, Cashman acknowledges that people generally warm to no-nonsense figureheads who pledge to get things done. A regional mayor can speak on behalf of the region to the rest of the country, and even the world. ‘They will represent Liverpool when they walk into the room,’ says Cashman.
At one point it looked as if there might be mayoral elections this May in North East England and West Yorkshire but both devolution deals collapsed last year. Sheffield, meanwhile, announced in January that its first regional mayor will not be elected until 2018.
At the same time, combined authorities for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and the West of England (comprising Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol and Gloucestershire) struck deals in time to hold mayoral elections on 4 May. Jo Casebourne, programme director at the Institute of Government, says regional mayors will start with a lot of ‘soft power’ and, in time, could become highly visible leaders in the same way as the Mayor of London. This will entail focusing on economic growth as well as services. ‘They’re going to have to bring local people with them and explain why their role matters,’ she says.
It may not help turnout in this May’s mayoral elections that some political parties, and even some candidates, are at best lukewarm about the post created. Julie Howell, Green Party candidate in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, says the election is an opportunity to ‘stimulate conversation’, while it is important that winners speak for everyone, not just the business community. ‘We don’t want a figurehead with all the power who is not in touch with the needs of local people,’ she says.
Following election, the regional mayors will chair a cabinet made up of council leaders from the combined authority. In several cases, this will include town or city mayors.
Sue Jeffrey, leader of Redcar and Cleveland Council and Labour’s mayoral candidate in Tees Valley, says the new post will be very different to local government as the mayor will have a specific role. ‘The figurehead is important because it’s about uniting people around a common agenda,’ she adds.
Adam Lent, director of the New Local Government Network, says it is important that mayors adopt a collaborative leadership style with a ‘shared sense of mission’ for their region. ‘If they can create a united front with the other mayors who are elected, they could be a very powerful voice for local government,’ says Lent. ‘They could restart the whole devolution process once again.’
Mayoral elections are taking place in six combined authorities on 4 May:
• Cambridgeshire and Peterborough
• Greater Manchester
• Liverpool City region
• Tees Valley
• West Midlands
• West of England
There are already directly elected mayors in 16 English local authorities, where the mayor is leader of the council.