As Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram settles into his office at No1 Mann Island, he talks to Place North West about “big-ticket plans”, devolution, competing with Manchester, and ensuring the North gets a fair deal.
While Saturday marks 100 days since the Metro Mayors took office, Rotheram didn’t officially take up his duties until purdah ended after the General Election. His first weeks have seen him focus on recruiting members of staff into the organisation, and securing input from senior advisers, such as economist Lord Jim O’Neill.
While Greater Manchester’s Metro Mayor Andy Burnham walked into an office with 300 staff, Rotheram had “considerably less”.
“Andy has walked into something that was designed not by him and we can design ours. It will be interesting to see which one, in the coming years, bears the most fruit,” Rotheram says.
“I think that we’ve got a fantastic opportunity to get some talent in from far and wide, and not from just the usual suspects, so we’re looking at this as a massive opportunity rather than as a threat and we haven’t missed any of the deadlines. Anything that we were expected to have hit by Government, we have done.”
Rotheram’s remit spreads across the six local authorities which make up the City Region; Liverpool, Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, and Wirral. How has he found working with the different councils?
“A lot of good work had been done prior to my election and there had been two former Chairs of the Combined Authority, so we weren’t starting from a blank sheet of paper. People had already got used to trying to work more collaboratively, so all that we’re doing is trying to put rocket boosters under that so we can get to where we need to get to as quickly as we possibly can.”
Rotheram’s “transformational” plans for the City Region is headed by two big-ticket projects; high speed digital connectivity, and dusting off proposals for a River Mersey tidal barrage, first mooted in 1982.
“We can do something as six that no one single local authority can do. We need to start knitting together the infrastructure advantages we have in our City Region.
“Lots of international globally respected organisations are talking about becoming carbon neutral, and big data takes big energy. If we can provide them with clean, green predictable renewable energy then that could be our game changer.”
With cuts to Northern transport projects recently making headlines, Rotheram is keen to emphasise the importance of speaking with one voice across the North when lobbying Government, to fight for a fair deal.
“The next stage is to put aside the tribal differences between Liverpool and Manchester, and get Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester City Regions working much more collaboratively for national infrastructure projects, so when we’re going to London to try and fight our corner, it’s no longer just Liverpool, it’s the 1.5 million people here and the 2.4 million people in Greater Manchester.
“If we’re to see George Osborne’s dream of a Northern Powerhouse come to fruition, we all have to work harder across that Northern corridor to see the opportunities to work together, rather than to fight each other for the crumbs off the table, when the South are getting £6 for every £1 that we get up here.”
Time for impetus
Rotheram describes himself as “politically impatient”, and attributes that to why ditched his role as MP for Walton to go for the Metro Mayor job.
“I want change all the time and the glacial pace of what happens in Westminster was one of the reasons the role of Metro Mayor was very attractive, as a way to try to give some impetus.”
However, despite that impatience Rotheram is taking a diplomatic approach to the Metro Mayor role, perhaps positioning himself as a counterpoint to the outspoken Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson, who is not known for pulling punches when it comes to his criticism of the Conservative Government.
While Rotheram won’t comment on Anderson’s style of leadership, he is quick to point out that he will still “call the Government out when they’re not doing things and we have done already, over what’s happened in New Ferry for instance”.
“However, we need to work with the Government wherever possible to get the opportunities for funding which will help us transform our economic fortunes. I can’t continually berate the Government on one hand, and then say ‘you’ve given us this devolution deal, which includes the opportunity to harness the power of the River Mersey, but we need some help and funding to do it, please?’
“My approach will be to try and do as much as we possibly can behind the scenes, before we have to resort to megaphone diplomacy.”
From frameworks to focus
Rotheram has brought figures such as Jim O’Neill on board partly to work through the overwhelming suite of documents that Liverpool City Region has been using to guide its economic plans; the State of the City Region Report, the Regional Growth Strategy, Building Our Futures Together, a Strategic Investment Framework, and recent work around a Strategic Investment Fund.
Rotheram admits that the previous approach “may have been a bit scattergun”.
“We want to be all things to all men and women, and we can’t. Sometimes you need to focus, and ensure that strategically we’re getting things right.”
At a time of national uncertainty in the face of Brexit, Rotheram concedes that his plan has to factor in flexibility. “We need to be able to respond to what’s coming round the corner.”
While admitting that he remains “a committed pro-European”, Rotheram’s focus is now on “representing the views of 1.5 million people and looking at the opportunities after Brexit”.
“Given where we are, we’re a port city, outwardly facing, we’re historic in trans-Atlantic trade links, so there could be opportunities and new markets that open up to us.”
The next stage also involves reopening negotiations with central Government, to secure more autonomy for the City Region.
“Devolution is a journey, so the bit we’ve got now is not the destination; we’ll continue to organically grow and we need to start negotiations with Government to see what comes next. A lot of that will be predicated on how successful we are at delivering what we’ve currently got and, believe me, we will be absolutely successful.”