COMMENT | What makes a successful Metro Mayor?

This weekend marks 100 days since the country’s first Metro Mayors took up their posts, writes Steve Gillingham of Mace. With terrorist attacks, a turbulent general election, and challenging Brexit negotiations all making the headlines, it has been a testing initiation period for both Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham and Liverpool City Region’s Steve Rotheram.

Given the wider context, each Mayor has done well to ensure their voices have been heard; speaking up for their respective city-regions on the national stage. Meanwhile, recent controversy over the Government’s downgrading of rail electrification plans has demonstrated the clear potential for our new Metro Mayors to act as figureheads not only for their own city regions, but for the wider North of England.

However, the role of Northern England’s new city leaders extends far beyond that of a spokesperson. They are tasked with tackling weak productivity, improving transport connectivity, and ensuring our education system provides the skills needed to build the Northern Powerhouse. It’s a big ask, and there are plenty of lessons to be learnt from elsewhere on what makes a successful Metro Mayor.

The importance of building alliances and partnerships – between cities, between the public and private sector, and between politicians of differing party stripes – is one such lesson. In Stuttgart, a city that shares some similarities with Manchester, former Mayor Wolfgang Schuster served for 16 years, developing it into a European frontrunner in research, industrial technology and higher education. Schuster’s strategy was founded on a faith that, by working together, the cities of Germany and Europe could be more than the sum of their parts. Stuttgart by itself is not a globally significant city, but Schuster used his position to press for German and EU intervention in economic reform, education and infrastructure investment.

Equally important for our Metro Mayors is understanding the key challenges of their city-regions. Focused, deliverable programmes with achievable goals are key. Providence, Rhode Island won the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge award in 2013 for its achievements tackling low levels of literacy, with its Providence Talks scheme aimed at bridging the ‘word gap’ between the city’s wealthiest and least well-off children. Crucially, successive mayors took ownership of a policy that went beyond their official remit, something that Mr Burnham has already done in Manchester with the launch of a fund aimed at ending rough sleeping in Greater Manchester by 2020. From the early days of his administration, homelessness has been an issue which set the mayoralty apart. Our new Metro Mayors have fewer formal powers than many of their international counterparts, and pushing beyond their remit may well be key to their success.

However, successful Mayors don’t just tackle problems, they also identify opportunities. Perhaps the archetypal mayoral visionary is Michael Bloomberg of New York, who transformed the city in the aftermath of 9/11 and through the turmoil of the financial crisis. Our new Metro Mayors might not have the resources of a Mayor Bloomberg, but a touch of his single-mindedness to achieve a more autonomous and better connected North will serve them well.

Both Mr Burnham and Mr Rotherham are already beginning to demonstrate a strong vision of what a successful North West will look like under their leadership; but they will need to ensure that the many day-to-day problems don’t detract from their mission. Improving transport connectivity looks likely to be a key element – as they have rightly pointed out in a recent open letter to the Transport Secretary, investment in rail infrastructure is crucial to revitalising the Northern Powerhouse economy. It has been great to see our city-regions lead on this issue, and Northern leaders will undoubtedly continue urging the Government to improve cross-Pennine links with a Crossrail for the North, move forward with HS2, and provide greater connectivity to our airports and from across the region.

All cities are different and history suggests Greater Manchester and Liverpool can forge their own path, not replicate the strategies of others. However, there are clearly lessons Mayor Burnham and Mayor Rotherham can learn from their international counterparts. For Northern England’s new Metro Mayors to be successful, they will need to go beyond the constraints of their formal powers, forge links with other cities, press for the infrastructure improvements our region so badly needs, and act strategically to address the big issues facing our cities.

  • Steve Gillingham is director for the North at Mace

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Not once do you mention us…..the Citizens! We are not passive bystanders, these are OUR cities and we have to live with the consequences of ego, lack of vision, dreams or Political will. I love my city as does any other Scouser, yet apart from the odd headline, we are outside the magic circle, you don’t create vibrant cities with a tiny handful but rather, we, the Citizens make cities what they are, ask any visitor!

By Cathy Wilson

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