How will Wales respond to the rise of the English Metro-Mayor?

How can the Welsh city regions fit with the rise of the English Mayor? Nicolas Webb examines.






Image of Cardiff Bay

In September last year, Newport Civic Society arranged an event in partnership with the IWA to debate whether Newport should have a directly elected mayor. The aim was not to start a campaign for such a role, but to encourage people to think more broadly about what they want from local government and how best it can be delivered. Since then, things have moved very quickly to the east of Offa’s Dyke, but rather more slowly here in Wales. Even the campaign for an elected Mayor in Cardiff now looks like a pitch for a role which, while welcome, is out of step with moves across the border.

England has hardly had a smooth path to the new model of city region metro-mayors. Referenda in 2012 saw nine out of ten cities reject an elected mayor. Bristol was the notable exception, while decisions taken by councillors in Liverpool and Leicester led to the adoption of the system in three of England’s major cities outside of London. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was revolutionary in its approach to handing away power from Westminster, but it was not winning the hearts and minds of voters for the idea. That setback makes the current changes all the more challenging, but the new Secretary of State, Greg Clark MP, is a true believer in powerful city regions and has invited bids for powers, rather than prescribing what can be localised. The result will be a patchwork of powers. No doubt some will criticise this imbalance, but no-one can deny the raw radicalism of devolving items such as the NHS and Social Care budgets to Greater Manchester. Furthermore Clark has focused more keenly on ensuring that it is not just power but, crucially, also responsibility which is devolved.

Greater Manchester was the first region to sign up. It was a logical starting point with its clearly defined boundaries and the strong record of Manchester City Council over more than a decade. The second devolution deal with an elected mayor was to the Sheffield City Region. Interestingly, this included not just the old South Yorkshire metropolitan districts, but also districts in neighbouring Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire to reflect the true reach of a city region. Two further deals have been agreed, one in the Tees Valley and another covering a huge area including County Durham, Northumberland and the former Tyne & Wear authorities.

The make-up of these city regions is not alien to us in Wales. The two organisations launched by the Welsh Government extend beyond not only the tight local authority boundaries but well into rural areas too. Swansea Bay City Region includes Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, while Cardiff Capital Region features Monmouthshire. Indeed, Cllr Peter Fox of Monmouthshire is one of the body’s most vocal supporters. However, Welsh City Regions still appear to be poorly defined in terms of what powers they actually hold and they are distant from the population at large.

It is not in the public interest to have city regions answerable to the Welsh Government rather than local people. No-one doubts Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson’s long commitment to the Labour Party, but his mandate from the people allows him the freedom to bring forward his own interpretation of Labour principles in a way which he feels is best suited to the cause of furthering Liverpool. English city regions are about to be run by powerful independent-thinking people as we have become used to in London. Welsh city regions are Welsh Government quangos led by appointed Chairmen with very impressive CVs, but in neither case is it their primary job.

In some respects this difference may be minimal, even if it is not ideal. It might be argued that it is easier for an unelected body to connect up the proposed South Wales Metro system than an elected mayor, who would have to consider local resistance to change affecting their chances of re-election. However, the re-emergence of Britain’s great cities as powerful entities on a European or global stage will highlight the difference.

Sir Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester, said “People come to the UK and, frankly, don’t want to meet the ‘man with the chain’. What a potential investor in Leicester wants to meet is the person who can deliver. And a council leader, or a chief executive, does not look or sound like that sort of person.” The same is true at a City Region level. If the elected Mayors of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle are sitting around the table in Davos talking to international financiers, it is hard to see that a Welsh Government-appointed City Region Chair – or a combination of local authority leaders – would hold the same powerful mandate when pitching their case.

One cannot fully address the issue of city regions without considering the ongoing debate about local authority boundaries in Wales. I do not intend to critique the lazy Williams Commission proposals, nor the politicised version produced by the Labour Welsh Government. To do so would be an article or two in itself. Equally, the current 22 authorities are legitimately challenged as being inefficient in service delivery. Even if that were not the case, think back to that earlier reference to the table at Davos; do we really think that one person representing 140,000 people in Newport is going to command the same level of interest as the Mayor of the North East representing a population of more than 2.3 million? There is a need to work as units with a larger critical mass than the current local authorities. However, it is worth noting the significant shortfall in the solution some propose of combined authorities delivering services at a cross-council level. This is flawed because it takes power further away from the people. If a Torfaen resident is currently unhappy with a service provided by their council, then they can vote a different way at the next council election. When service provision is taken over by a remote body, which is only partly answerable to the elected councillors, that makes it far more difficult for ordinary people to oppose a policy and change the decision makers. This is why city regions in England are being required to adopt an elected mayor model. I don’t deny it is seen as controversial by some that this is being imposed, but it crucially retains accountability for decision making or, put more simply, allows voters to kick out those who fail to deliver.

At face value, a simple solution to the rise of English metro-mayors is to adopt the same model for our two city regions. That would be no small task. The people of Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire might see value in working with Cardiff and Swansea respectively to boost their economies but, as we have seen with proposed local government reform, there remains resistance to democratic change where there is a fear that a larger authority might be dominant.

How then could Wales realistically respond? Perhaps the answer lies more in local government reform than current city regions. A first step could be to look at areas larger than existing local authorities to come together under an elected mayor, with an open option for further council areas to join in due course as they see the benefits which arise. It should be for a non-partisan body to define boundaries, but there are some obvious options which could be looked at. While the Swansea Bay City Region includes Pembrokeshire, the core Swansea Bay area is represented by Neath Port Talbot and Swansea councils along with the Llanelli portion of Carmarthenshire – a population of around 450,000. This is someway short of the large English cities but carries considerably more clout than each authority speaking individually. It also retains the highly recognisable Swansea brand in the name. In South East Wales, while the option is almost unspoken, there are two clear urban entities and a mayor covering what I would propose calling “the Cities of Cardiff and Newport”  would instantly have a mandate from a population of half a million people. These major conurbations would begin to give Wales the truly devolved cities required to compete on a global stage, attract investment, have greater freedom of thought and be accountable to voters.

Nicolas Webb is Chairman of Newport Civic Society and a former Parliamentary Candidate for Newport West. He is writing in a private capacity. He tweets at @ndwebb