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Rotheram and Houchen: 'Mayoral model success depends on us'

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Two metro-mayors have spoken about the challenges they have faced in the first seven months, including setting up new organisations and managing local political tensions.

Speaking at Centre for Cities’ first ever UK-international metro mayors’ summit last week Tees Valley CA’s Ben Houchen (Con) and Liverpool City Region CA’s Steve Rotheram (Lab) both identified delivering major infrastructure projects in their first terms as a way to visibly prove to people they can bring tangible benefits that will improve lives.

Ensuring success

Starting from scratch, the first cohort of mayors have had to spend a significant amount of time building up the capacity of not only their immediate teams but the combined authorities they lead.

Mr Houchen said building internal structures “has been a big challenge” which has eaten into some of the time available to implement mayors’ manifestos.

Mr Rotheram, who has had a lower profile than many other metro-mayors since the elections in May, said in order to make the “constitutional experiment” of mayors a success, he would need to deliver on his manifesto pledge to ensure no borough in the Liverpool City Region is left behind.

He said there was a “political disconnect which is certainly very acute the further you get away from the city centre” of Liverpool. To do that, he wants to distribute the investment fund, worth £30m a year, around all six districts “so they all see something tangible from this thing called devolution and this person called the metro mayor”.

Mr Houchen and Mr Rotheram, along with Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) and West Midlands mayor Andy Street (Con), will only serve until 2020 before the electoral system in those areas moves to four-year terms, as is already the case in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and West of England.

As a result, mayors are likely to focus on “big policies that can make a step change” to their areas, said Mr Houchen who added he is “concentrating massively on infrastructure” between now and 2020. This week Mr Houchen met transport secretary Chris Grayling to discuss plans to rearrange rail lines at Darlington station to provider faster and more frequent services. The region’s transport strategy also proposes improving Middlesbrough’s train station and building a new crossing on the A19 Tees flyover.

He said: “In the first term you have got to do something visible because we don’t have the benefit of people understanding what mayors do and the benefits they can bring.

“By definition, for this [model] to succeed in the UK all of us [mayors] have to succeed because if we don’t then people will not really appreciate the role. It may well be that one or two of us are a bit crap and the whole model will fall down.”

Engaging the electorate and tackling tensions

Pledging to undertake big ticket transformational projects is one thing but “you have got to take people with you”, said Mr Rotheram.

“That’s the most difficult part. You can set out a strategic direction and provide leadership, but people have to buy into this.”

LGC reported last month how Mr Rotheram had not yet appointed a deputy mayor and that questions were being raised about his leadership.

Mr Rotheram acknowledged there were “tensions” locally but added: “I do think there are tensions in all of the areas and there are tensions between individual councils. That’s politics.”

In the Tees Valley Mr Houchen, a Conservative, chairs a combined authority of five Labour local authority leaders. He said he had been “surprised at how little politics plays in my role” and added: “There’s a goodwill and buy in because of the position the combined authorities are currently in and getting, let’s be honest, preferential treatment.”

In the Budget Tees Valley got £123m investment to regenerate the former steelworks site at Redcar and a share of the government’s new £1.7bn transforming cities fund, of which half is being awarded to the six mayoral combined authority areas.

Managing expectations and attracting big business

The role, with its raised public profile, means mayors become a focal point for people’s problems regardless of whether they have any direct influence over the source of their complaints.

Mr Houchen said the role comes with “a lot of soft powers” so he tries to assist people where possible but added: “We have to manage expectations as well.”

Being seen as a “regional leader” has its advantages though, said Mr Houchen, especially as mayors seek to boost economic growth. Businesses “gravitate” towards the mayor rather than local authority leaders or MPs as they want to talk to someone who can make things happen rather than discussing “the bureaucracy and the nonsense”, he said.

Having a regional mayor also enables areas to compete with international city regions for business which councils struggle to do as they are “far too parochial”, added Mr Houchen.

Devolution danger

Mr Rotherham said there is a “real danger” mayors will “get some of the blame” if they fail to deliver as much change as people hope they will. He bemoaned the limited powers, specifically in relation to tackling “skills imbalances and shortages”.

“There needs to be a further rollout of devolution,” he said. “If we make a success of this some more will come.”

Mr Houchen said making the mayoral model a success in the Tees Valley could demonstrate to other areas without a major city at its core that they too could benefit from having a regional “champion” people can get behind.

“People buy into leadership, they buy into positivity, and they buy into a place on the move,” he said. “Having more devolution to more regional leaders will make a big difference.”

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