Next month will mark the first anniversary of directly elected mayors covering combined authority areas.
While the issue of whether to adopt a mayor or not dominated discussions in local government for a while, there was a nervousness in the run-up to the inaugural elections about whether voters had even noticed their impending introduction.
Turnout for the six mayoral elections ranged from 21% in the Tees Valley to 34% in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – this was at least comparable to the turnout for the first election of the London mayor in 2000, also 34%. Crucially though, turnouts for all were higher than the 15% average for the first police and crime commissioner elections in 2013.
While police and crime commissioners are still struggling to make an impact, mayors have fared far better in their first year in office.
Tony Travers, professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said all of the mayors have “gone about their task with gusto, enthusiasm and thought” gaining “prominence from time-to-time”. Greater Manchester CA mayor Andy Burnham (Lab), West Midlands CA mayor Andy Street (Con), and Liverpool City Region CA mayor Steve Rotheram (Lab) in particular have regularly been “visible in the national media”, said Professor Travers.
But making an impact has been far from straight-forward. Indeed, writing for LGC, Mr Rotheram said his role “is not without its challenges”, not least with the way mayors are finding their feet interacting with council leaders regardless of whether they belong to the same political party.
“While we may robustly share our views on occasion, we are all committed to moving the city region in the right direction,” said Mr Rotheram.
In an interview with LGC, to appear on LGCplus.com tomorrow, Mr Street admitted to having “a few little run-ins” with Labour members on the West Midlands CA – earlier this year he had to defer his plans to introduce a precept following opposition from council leaders. In a separate interview Tees Valley CA mayor Ben Houchen (Con), who has recently had a public spat with local Labour leaders over his plans to bring the local airport back into public ownership, said there is “always going to be friction” as “it’s politics”.
Politics aside, all of the mayors have had to spend a considerable amount of time setting up their offices and combined authorities to best implement their manifestos. It is an effort that “cannot be underestimated”, said Mr Street.
But “from a standing start” all of the mayors have brought “momentum and profile” to major issues affecting their areas, said Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter.
Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s mayor James Palmer (Con) has certainly caught the imagination with his plans for an underground rail network, for example. Despite it sounding far-fetched the issue is gaining traction.
Mr Street’s relentless lobbying helped to win the 2022 Commonwealth Games for Birmingham while he also helped to secure a second devolution deal for the region.
Mr Houchen’s maintained focus on improving infrastructure and industry has raised the Tees Valley’s profile to heights it has never experienced before, while Mr Burnham’s pledge to end rough sleeping has struck a chord in Greater Manchester.
Perhaps West of England mayor Tim Bowles (Con) is the one to have gained the least national prominence despite a steady stream of announcements aimed at further boosting the region’s burgeoning economy. However, recently securing a housing deal with the government helped to propel the region into the limelight.
Sarah Longlands, senior research fellow at IPPR North, said the way mayors had honed on local issues has “helped them to establish their credibility”.
While all of the mayors have sought to make their own headlines, Mr Burnham was thrust into the limelight just weeks into the job after a suicide bomber killed 22 people, and injured more than 100 others, at the Manchester Arena on 22 May.
A review into the aftermath of the attack, led by former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake (Crossbench), was full of praise for the way Mr Burnham and other local leaders responded.
Ms Longlands said Mr Burnham was “very statesmanlike in his approach” and added while “nobody would notice if you got rid of” police and crime commissioners “the mayors have been different”.
But challenges await.
With Brexit looming even mayors are unlikely to be spared as much time by ministers in the coming year. However, observers are convinced the government is keen to deepen existing devolution deals.
While that is good news for those with agreements in place, there is a danger it “exacerbates disparities between areas” which do not, said Ms Longlands.
However, Professor Travers said it is in the government’s interest to focus on the mayors if there is a real desire to legitimise the role.
LGC previously reported how Mr Houchen warned all mayors “have got to do something visible” to show people “what mayors do and the benefits they can bring”.
Professor Travers said: “The government has a role here too… they need to help the mayors answer the question: ‘what have they done?’
“The government needs to give them greater freedoms or greater resources.
“If people can’t point to anything that has changed or can’t work out who is doing what there is a risk apathy will set in.
“It is also in the government’s interest because if the economy is to be rebalanced, particularly after Brexit, the government needs those areas to succeed.”