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'We don't have true devolution' — why the pandemic has been a coming of age moment for England's Metro Mayors

“Westminster and Whitehall need to get better at devolving responsibility and flexibility," Andy Burnham says

8 min read

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a watershed moment for England’s metro mayors. But will Downing Street read its bruising encounters with Andy Burnham as evidence that mayors need more powers – or as a reason to take the powers they do have away? Jack Kessler reports on the “unfinished” state of English devolution

Exasperated by his allies across the Atlantic, Henry Kissinger is said to have remarked: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” For all his present-day difficulties, Boris Johnson can at least count on one certainty. If he wants to speak to Manchester, he knows exactly who to call. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, has been one of the key players to emerge out of the coronavirus pandemic. The former cabinet minister and two-time Labour leadership contender has long made ‘defender of the North’ his lodestar, to occasional derision. Now, as mayor of the unofficial capital of the north, he finally has the position and political moment to match the rhetoric.

For Covid-19 has been a coming of age moment for England’s metro mayors. But the pandemic has also highlighted the unfinished nature of English devolution. While Burnham, Andy Street in the West Midlands and Steve Rotheram in Liverpool have never enjoyed a higher profile, they lack the powers to go with it. This mismatch both contributed to the British state’s lacklustre response to the pandemic and also made the public row between Burnham and Johnson inevitable.

“If devolution continues to be all of us bending our knees asking for this bit of money for this or that then we don’t have true devolution,” Burnham told me. Dan Jarvis, mayor of the Sheffield City Region, concurs. “You’ve always got to start with the money. At the moment, we’re only able to draw upon a series of small, short-term pots and these often come with quite onerous restrictions.”

A lack of fiscal levers forces mayors to go with a begging bowl to Whitehall every time they want to do something, while Treasury red tape inhibits their ability to allocate money in ways that maximise local growth. Burnham and Jarvis, therefore, look on jealousy at the powers enjoyed by the Scottish and Welsh first ministers.

In some ways, the Burnham-Johnson confrontation is both a symptom of the success of English devolution up to this point and a result of its unfinished state, says Simon Jeffrey of the Centre for Cities think tank. “Because we don’t have a finished devolution settlement in England, the government has opened itself up to getting involved with minute and rancorous debates with local government.”

It means that while Greater Manchester now has a nationally-recognised figurehead that can stand up to the Prime Minister, it still lacks many of the fiscal and legal powers that might have prevented such a confrontation.

The unfinished nature of English devolution not only impacts the residents of northern cities but the quality of governance across the UK. Tony Travers, professor at the London School of Economics, says that England’s hyper centralisation is the cause of many of its problems.

“National government has virtually no apparatus to deliver local responses. The Prime Minister acts as the mayor of England with so many decisions concentrated in Downing Street. Central government is too strong yet too weak. It would be far more effective if it wasn’t trying to do so much.”

Burnham is convinced that the pandemic has exposed the limitations of running the country from SW1. “Imagine a world where test and trace was localised from the start and funding is given to city regions to provide business support. I think we’d be in a better place if we’d adopted a more collaborative approach.”

Burnham pinpoints the lifting of the national lockdown as representative of the damaging impact of England’s centralised system on the regions. “When the first national lockdown was lifted, it was taken with the south of England in mind, not the north. So we’ve never been able to get in a better position to deal with the virus.”

However, the prospects for further devolution are uncertain. The Conservative 2019 election manifesto included a commitment to “devolving power to people and places across the UK”. But a government keen on the repatriation of powers from Brussels gives the impression of being less enthusiastic about devolving them to the regions. Noticeably, the promised devolution white paper has been delayed numerous times.

If devolution continues to be us bending our knees asking for a bit of money for this or that then we don’t have true devolution

The pandemic has understandably occupied much of the government’s bandwidth, but this is still an administration that has found time to negotiate a future trade agreement with the European Union while also staging several pitch battles with senior civil servants.

Jarvis points to changes at the top of government since 2016. “George Osborne wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but he was a real advocate for devolved models. The government committed to levelling up and to the Northern Powerhouse – they have not made good on that. At the moment, we’re being levelled down.”

There are further consequences to the rise of mayors and you only have to look at the current occupant of No10 to understand why. Historically, Prime Ministers have largely been picked from two pools of candidates – leaders of the opposition who win elections (Thatcher, Blair and Cameron) or senior cabinet ministers (Callaghan, Major, May). But Boris Johnson took a different route. And the UK’s first mayor-turned-Prime Minister is unlikely to be the last.

“Being mayor brings together power and a degree of glamour”, says Travers. “It does offer significant opportunities to gain a bigger profile and demonstrate your capacity to operate.”

Indeed it is hardly inconceivable that the mayoralty is not the ceiling of ambition for Burnham or Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. And should Labour fail to win the next election, both may consider their governing experience makes them a strong candidate in any future leadership election. So what they do now matters.

But if mayors lack many of the fiscal and legal levers they say they need to do the job properly, just how good a training is it for the top job? Boris Johnson may only be a sample size of one, but his rise is a cautionary tale to some. Johnson was perceived to be a moderate success as mayor of London. An enthusiastic cheerleader for the city both at home and abroad, his greatest failure is a garden bridge that was never built which, while expensive and embarrassing, did not involve fatalities.

Yet Johnson was widely panned for his performance as foreign secretary, before his resignation over Theresa May’s European negotiations, while his handling of the pandemic as Prime Minister has engendered widespread criticism. Is the fact that Johnson appeared to succeed as mayor of London before faltering in high ministerial office evidence that the role of mayor of London is insufficiently difficult? Put another way, should one be able to run London but not a hollowed-out Foreign Office?

Travers points to the way in which Johnson was able to run his mayoral team to explain why he was more successful in that post. “If you’re mayor of London, it’s possible to have deputy mayors – and Johnson had good ones – to deliver most of the executive functions of the role. But as foreign secretary and Prime Minister, the decisions keep coming to you. As Prime Minister, you’re exposed to literally life and death decisions which you can’t so easily pass on to your deputies.”

Guto Harri, director of external affairs during Johnson’s first mayoral term, points to the specific circumstances surrounding Johnson’s unhappy time on King Charles Street. “If you’re mayor, you’re numero uno. But Johnson was put into a Foreign Office that was gutted and told to deliver what Theresa May wanted. That was never going to work.”

The pandemic has raised the profiles of metro mayors like Burnham to that already enjoyed by the mayor of London, indeed Burnham’s name recognition is probably now greater than that of most cabinet ministers. If this raised profile leads to more mayor-turned Prime Ministers, and mayors lack the legal and fiscal powers they say they need, will we get leaders with the experience necessary to run the country?

Harri is enthusiastic about the prospect of more mayors moving into Downing Street. “Being a mayor should clearly be seen as a potential stepping stone to No10. Compared with the path of backbench MP, being told what to do to then being a bag carrier to junior minister still with no power and even in the cabinet where your SpAd is answering to Dominic Cummings.”

The rise of metro mayors inevitably raises for central government. Firstly, will Downing Street read its bruising encounters with Burnham as evidence that mayors need more powers, or as a reason to take the powers they do have away? And will devolution lead to better government in both the devolved regions as well as those areas still largely governed from Whitehall?

What is clear is that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a coming of age moment for England’s metro mayors. Not just a boost to their profiles, but also an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of role they can play and how much more they could do with additional powers and resources.

Burnham is eager for those powers and aware of the challenges greater fiscal autonomy brings. “Westminster and Whitehall need to get better at devolving responsibility and flexibility. If they do, we’ll happily accept the accountability that comes with it.”

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