Having a mayor

The biggest slice of regional devolution yet is about to be served on the North West when voters elect metro mayors for the Manchester and Liverpool areas.

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Local democracy, it seems, is like a mole tunnelling its way around a field. Just when you think you’ve killed the idea of having an elected mayor for your city, as the people of Manchester did in 2012 when they rejected it in a referendum, a pile of earth pops up again. Only now the molehill has become a mountain.

This time – but with no referendum to back it – all 10 councils in the Greater Manchester area will share a mayor rather than the job being confined to the city. In Liverpool too there will be a newly elected executive mayor to oversee many services in the six councils around Merseyside. Watching from the wings is Sheffield, which is due to have an elected mayor for its wider region in 2018.

“Some claim a high-visibility mayor will be more accountable to the public.”

There are people who see such super-mayors as a cynical ruse by the Conservatives to hand responsibility for local services to what in all probability will be Labour mayors, who can then take the flak if they don’t deliver or have their budgets cut. Others view them as a huge opportunity for joined-up planning at a local level for big-spend budgets like health, social care, skills, policing, fire, housebuilding and transport. They also claim that a high-visibility mayor will be more accountable to the public and boost the profile of their cities, like US versions such as Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York in 2002-2013.

The devolution of the £6 billion health and social care budget to the Manchester region is the headline part of the new process, although the mayor will not actually have complete control. But while the devolved health board will be run by representatives of 40 organisations in Greater Manchester, the mayor is expected to be the key to its success.

Professor Ian Greer, clinician scientist at Manchester University, says the devolution of the health and social care budget to the city region is a great opportunity to do things differently.

“By that I mean taking a very integrated approach to cancer care, going from discovering signs, where we understand new aspects of the disease, all the way through to better services. Because we’ve got this integrated approach in Manchester now, we can do that much more efficiently and effectively, arguably, than anywhere else in the UK and possibly Europe.”

So who are the main competitors in the mayoral elections on 4 May?

In Manchester, the mayoral powers will reach across the 10 metropolitan boroughs that make up the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. As well as the city itself they are Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan. With a total population of 2.8 million they form, after Greater London, the second most populous urban area in the UK.

The Labour candidate is Andy Burnham, MP for Leigh. As it happens, he is well qualified to deal with devolved health and social care, having served as health secretary during Gordon Brown’s premiership and shadow health secretary under Ed Miliband. Homelessness is one of his main campaign issues, with a pledge to end rough sleeping in Greater Manchester by the end of his first term.

He put backs up by suggesting that only someone with cabinet-level experience could do the job, and no one in the Burnham campaign is complacent since national opinion polls put Labour on 25 per cent compared with 42 per cent for the Conservatives, while the loss of the Copeland by-election to the Tories is still fresh in many minds.

However, Burnham is the bookies’ favourite, and with good reason. The political make-up of the 10 constituent councils suggests a comfortable win. All except Trafford are Labour controlled, and in the case of Manchester City Council 95 of the 96 seats are held by the party.

Burnham’s Conservative opponent is Sean Anstee, who runs Trafford Council. He is making much of his credentials as the boy from a Partington council house who went to the local comprehensive, became vice-president of a Manchester bank and by the age of 26 was the council’s youngest leader. With large building projects proposed for greenbelt land in Labour-controlled authorities like Bury, Stockport and Wigan, Anstee promises to reduce speculative developments to save open spaces around urban fringes.

The Lib Dems’ Jane Brophy represents Timperley on Trafford Council. When she fought the Oldham West and Royton by-election 18 months ago she polled just 3.7 per cent of the vote. With both Burnham and Anstee acknowledging that Brexit is for real following the referendum, Brophy’s is a lone voice arguing for continued close links with the EU.

There is much comment about Ukip’s candidate, an orthodox Jew, because in 2015 a YouGov poll found that Ukip supporters were more likely to agree with anti-semitic statements than voters for other parties. Bizarrely, Shneur Odze himself admits he once thought Ukip were “BNP in blazers”. The election will be an uphill fight for him since there is just one Ukip councillor – in Oldham – in the whole of Greater Manchester.

In the wider Liverpool region, the city itself already has a directly elected mayor in the shape of veteran Labour councillor Joe Anderson, who won the job in 2012 and successfully stood for re-election last year.

It was originally intended to elect a metro mayor for all six councils in the Liverpool city region, but although the idea was supported by Liverpool, Halton, and Knowsley it was vetoed by the boroughs of Wirral, St Helens and Sefton. Since then, a growing awareness of the benefits of regional devolution has brought about an agreement by all the councils to embrace the idea. The new mayor will work with leaders of the constituent councils, including Liverpool’s Anderson, to formulate a strategic plan for the next 30 years.

Of the eight candidates for metro mayor, Labour’s Steve Rotheram has the highest profile. The son of a Kirkby forklift driver, he has a classic working-class back story, having left school at 16 to become a bricklayer. He then built up a construction business before studying for a degree in the city and serving as a Liverpool councillor. In 2010 he became MP for the Walton seat. But his desire for the mayor’s job does not mean, as some suggest is the case with Burnham, that he is a refugee from the unhappy Jeremy Corbyn-led party at Westminster. Rotheram happens to be the Labour leader’s eyes and ears there as parliamentary private secretary.

The Liberal Democrats once considered Liverpool a local government stronghold in England and ran the city council as recently as 2010, when they lost in a Labour landslide. Until then the party was also in coalition with Conservatives running Sefton and Wirral councils, but in line with its national slide in fortunes the Lib Dem vote collapsed at local elections and it now holds only a handful of seats. The party’s candidate, Carl Cashman, is a 24-year-old philosophy student who became a Knowsley councillor for the first time last May.

For their part, the Conservatives clearly understand that winning in the Liverpool city region is as likely as Labour taking control of Tunbridge Wells. But fight the mayoral election they must, and the blue rosette is worn by Tony Caldeira, a local businessman who was the defeated Tory candidate in the Liverpool city mayor elections of 2012 and 2016, last time coming fifth out of a field of six with just 3.6 per cent of the vote.

The case against the widely held view that Ukip’s bubble has burst will be put by Paula Walters, a civil servant from New Brighton. However, there is currently not a single Ukip councillor on any of the Liverpool city region local authorities.

Manchester candidates: Sean Anstee (Con), Jane Brophy (Lib Dem), Andy Burnham (Lab), Marcus Farmer (Ind), Stephen Morris (Eng Dem), Shneur Odze (Ukip), Will Patterson (Green), Mohammed Aslam (Ind)

Liverpool candidates: Roger Bannister (TUSC), Tony Caldeira (Con), Carl Cashman (Lib Dem), Tom Crone (Green), Tabitha Morton (Women’s Equality), Pete Price (Ind), Steve Rotheram (Lab), Paula Walters (Ukip)

What will metro mayors do?

For centuries mayors were the figureheads of English councils, the most famous being the 15th century character Sir Richard Whittington who escaped poverty in Lancashire to become a wealthy city merchant and Lord Mayor of London. His classic rags-to-riches story is the basis of the folk tale Dick Whittington and his Cat, a staple of the pantomime season.

Many councils still have mayors who wear a ceremonial chain of office and scarlet robe embroidered with their civic coat of arms. They perform non-executive functions like greeting important visitors and presenting prizes at schools, and are usually appointed by fellow councillors as a reward for long service.

Since 2002, however, some councils have opted to have an elected mayor, the best-known being London. The north’s first were in Doncaster, Liverpool and Salford. Whoever wins the new mayoral elections in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region will have direct hands-on executive control over many aspects of council services, each starting with a 30-year £900 million investment fund to use to award apprenticeship grants for employers as well as develop post-16 further education and adult skills. They will be responsible for housing and planning, and set up mayoral development corporations to help grow their economies.

The new mayors will also take control of local buses and trams, allocate franchises, introduce new smart ticketing and improve roads networks. Liverpool will plan the integration of services for health and social care, while Greater Manchester will actually control a £6 billion budget for these services.

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