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A metro mayor for Manchester?

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It’s no surprise that those who turned out across Manchester yesterday – albeit not in great numbers - voted “no” to having a directly elected mayor.  They join Nottingham, Coventry and Bradford in rejecting the mayoral offer, with big questions about how many cities will ultimately opt for the mayoral model.

Manchester was always more likely to vote ‘no’ than yes’ (although the final result was closer than had been expected, 53.24% against, to 46.76% in favour). This is because the city already has many aspects of the strong leadership that a mayor could offer – and that’s true whether you talk to the business community or central government. Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein are already widely regarded as high profile and effective ambassadors for their city, even if their names are not widely recognised by the UK public.

But the big question facing Manchester now is whether the city will lose out by not having a mayor and being excluded from David Cameron’s inner “cabinet of mayors”. I was never convinced that tea with Cameron would be enough to convince Mancunians to vote for a mayor – after all, tea with ministers is on offer to the leadership team there now.  But losing out to Birmingham or Liverpool – or Salford – on additional powers or perks would be a different matter. 

The fact that Manchester struck its ‘city deal’ on the basis of its combined authority, without mention of a mayor, whereas the Liverpool city deal was pretty much contingent on moving to a mayoral model, seems to signal that the government recognises that different leadership models work in different cities.

And the innovative nature of Manchester’s ‘Earn Back’ city deal, with money from government to help Manchester invest in its infrastructure, suggests that ministers and civil servants realise how much potential Manchester has to grow. That means it would be surprising – and short-sighted – if the government didn’t continue to work with Manchester on its city deal, despite the ‘no’ vote to mayors.

But there is a longer term agenda for mayors in Manchester, one that Sir Richard Leese talked about today, and that’s about having a ‘metro mayor’ covering Greater Manchester, with the additional powers and responsibilities that this size of role should gain. It’s striking that this is how the 10 authorities of Greater Manchester are already working, and that it’s Greater Manchester, rather than just Manchester City Council, that is set to benefit from the city deal struck in March. 

The logical next step for Greater Manchester would be a metro mayor with additional powers and funding, at least along the lines of the powers afforded to the London mayor (who also covers multiple local authorities because it makes no sense to manage transport across just one or two local authorities). And if there was a clear offer about the benefits of having a directly elected mayor across this wider area – a clarity that was sadly lacking in the run up to these referendums – then there is a possibility that Greater Manchester could work towards having its first metro mayor.

This is not to underestimate the challenges of moving towards this model (which the Centre first called for in 2006). After all, we’ll know who Salford’s mayor is by this afternoon, and it will be interesting to see how that affects joint working. And Manchester will need to continue to work well with its neighbours and demonstrate that city-regional governance is not about the central authority expanding its control over its neighbours. 

But there could be clear benefits from having a Greater Manchester mayor, in terms of profile, powers, funding and clout. It’s interesting to consider whether we would be talking about a different result if yesterday’s referendum had been on a metro mayor for Greater Manchester.

In the meantime, it’s vital that the government does not let this derail the city deals process. If cities are given the choice about whether to have a mayor, and if they’re not told what the additional benefits of having a mayor would be, then they should not be penalised for making up their own minds. Supporting economic growth in our cities is far too important.

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