2021 promises to be a significant year in the development of devolution in England. Eight out of ten devolved mayoralties will face elections. The finances of combined authorities will once again come under scrutiny: the local government Fair Funding Review, long in gestation, is expected to take effect. The Local Growth Fund will come to an end; and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is likely to open. Mayors’ investment funds will face their first five-yearly gateway review. The future of industrial strategies and Local Enterprise Partnerships, and the shape of the current Government’s “levelling up” policy (foreshadowed to some extent in the 2020 Budget) may have become clearer.
Naturally, whether these timetables and decision points do converge in 2021 now depends upon the UK’s management of the coronavirus pandemic. Could that provide the impetus to a more systematic approach to the devolution of power to metro-mayors within England? Many colleagues have posited links between territorial governance and the character of responses to the pandemic. Davide Vampa suggests that co-operation between different tiers of government, rather than decentralisation per se, underlies the more robust responses to the pandemic seen in certain countries. Mike Kenny and Jack Sheldon suggest that co-ordination between the governments of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have featured unusually good intergovernmental relations.
At a more practical level, Jen Gaskell and Gerry Stoker suggest that centralised governance systems may be quicker to act when faced with a crisis, but localised systems offer greater potential for innovation in response. That hints that local capacity could offer a corrective, for instance, to the delays and mismatches highlighted around procurement of PPE within England. At a different geographical scale, English parish and town councils, repeatedly overlooked by most commentators, have undertaken a vast range of initiatives in support of their citizens.
England: governing the territory
What signs are there of realising Gaskell and Stoker’s hope that “decentralised capacity, combined with a constructive relationship at different levels of governance, might provide a more effective strategy throughout a crisis set to last for the foreseeable future”? Developments to date offer limited grounds for optimism that metro-mayors can expect a leading role in the recovery from the pandemic. A feature of English devolution policy since its inception in 2014 has been a scattergun range of initiatives (combined authorities, industrial strategies, growth deals, housing deals), the connections between which can be less than clear. The deal-based nature of the policy encouraged a competitive stance between localities. This has been complemented by a heterogeneous concept of scale. The Government’s interventions range from the organisational innovations of the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, to (sub-regional) combined authorities and mayors, to the multi-billion pound Towns Fund and the Future High Streets Fund, both launched in 2019.
Numerous commentators (IPPR North, UK2070 Commission, Localis) have published proposals to harmonise and deepen those policies. They recall long-standing narratives of excessive centralisation within the UK state. But the scale of the coronavirus pandemic may drown this narrative out: as Davide Vampa says, “when an external shock is threatening the very foundations of the economy and society, and total mobilisation of national resources is required, the role of the central government may be re-discovered, with effects that last even after the crisis is over”.
English metro-mayors will be very alert to this possibility, and will doubtless seek to engage their convening and networking capacities to counter a hasty recentralisation. But their starting-point is challenging. They have considerable powers but few duties: their powers are mostly concurrent (held also by other public bodies); and many of their powers have no funds attached. This means that whilst mayors may do many things, in practice they can afford to do relatively few.
Their limited funding also means that building up sustainable organisational capacity has proved a major challenge – and this is reflected in metro-mayors’ activities to date in response to the coronavirus. These have mostly consisted of signposting local businesses to Government support, co-ordinating local authority activities, and calling for changes to central policy after the pandemic. Compared with the range of responses from international mayors, English metro-mayors’ capacity is a far cry from the dense networking and trust associated with ‘place leadership’.
Almost since their inception, new powers have been proposed for metro-mayors. These include the GLA’s skills and employment ‘Call for Action’, seeking powers and funding over adult education, careers advice, apprenticeships and many related matters. The IPPR North report A Devolution Parliament proposes devolution of powers over employment support, adult skills, career advice, 16-19 education, and early years and school education (2020:33). The OECD recommends “spatial planning at the city-region level” (2020:15), covering transport and housing development, in tandem with creating “attractive cities” with cultural amenities and access to green spaces. Localis’s 2019 report Hitting Reset proposed combining Clinical Commissioning Groups with local authorities. Lord Heseltine’s 2019 report Empowering English Cities proposes that combined authority mayors should have powers over ‘affordable housing’, schools performance, skills, and ‘the unemployment and employment programmes’. The UK2070 Commission, reporting in February 2020, proposed devolution of powers around affordable housing, school performance, skills, employment assistance, and “community services” (2020: 65). Rail services, particularly in London and Manchester, are also of significant interest.
Demands for ‘more powers’, too, play into the traditional narrative of a hyper-centralised UK. But these would only form a part of a more systematic approach to the devolution of power. Just as important are practices of governance. How far are metro-mayors neglected by central government in the search for urgent solutions, or left out of important conversations? This is likely frequent compared with the parity of esteem often enjoyed by the Scottish and Welsh administrations. Such practice is likely to be abetted by the mayors’ peripheral location in public attention. A Centre for Cities survey in early 2020 showed high public awareness of the existence of mayors: but considerably lower awareness of who they were, with the exceptions of Andy Burnham in Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London. The UK Government might well see this as justifying a strong central policy direction.
Proposals have also appeared for devolution of powers with a regulatory or legislative character: for instance, a local role in immigration policy, including the local definition of “shortage occupations and appropriate minimum salary levels”; setting minimum wage levels and Local Housing Allowance rates; speeding enforcement; or the removal of restrictions on the use of right-to-buy receipts. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, made a high-profile declaration that his (abortive) 2020 re-election campaign would become “a referendum on rent controls”.
Suggestions of regulatory devolution signal a willingness to challenge conventional interpretations of what ‘place leadership’ means in the UK’s political culture. Their prognosis depends, however, on acceptance from the UK government and a willingness on its part to share the role of governing territory in the post-coronavirus world. Large-scale financial support for business and individuals is never likely to fall to local leaders, but they can play a critical role in early warning of difficulties, advising on implementation, and pursuing local efforts to rebuild – which the Government is likely to have limited time to manage directly. To achieve decentralised capacity and constructive intergovernmental relationships, a clear vision of the respective roles of different governmental organisations is indispensable.
Thanks to Arianna Giovannini for insightful comments on an earlier version of this piece.
 Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley and West Midlands were postponed from 2020, as was the Mayor of London election. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and West of England, were scheduled for 2021. The new West Yorkshire mayoralty is to hold its first election in 2021.
About the author
Mark Sandford is a senior research analyst in the House of Commons Library, specialising in local government and devolution within England. He has published a number of reports, papers and journal articles on local government finance and English devolution. He has also been a research fellow at the Constitution Unit, University College London, and head of research at the Electoral Commission