Six areas of England elected ‘metro-mayors’ in May 2017 to deliver the ‘devolution deals’ inspired and negotiated by the former Chancellor, George Osborne. The Government has stated that “the mayor[s] will represent their regions across the country and around the world. They will work with leaders of local councils and businesses to create jobs, boost skills, build homes and improve travel”. What do the mayors’ activities, in their first six months in office, tell us about how they will do these things? They are working within a crowded institutional landscape; and they have limited financial resources and formal powers. In many of the policy areas they are expected to influence – transport, skills, housing and planning – much decision-making remains under the control of central government, local authorities and other public bodies.
Leadership and soft power
Facing these multiple uncertainties, the mayors could seek to establish their legitimacy and validity by means of ‘soft power’. This phrase is used frequently in regard to mayors and leadership, though it is rarely defined. Academic studies of mayors and the role of ‘leadership’ in local governance have suggested that ‘soft power’ can be a route for local leaders to extend their influence beyond their organisations. This lets them use democratic legitimacy, leadership skills and negotiation to achieve outcomes that they are not able to achieve via their own legal powers and duties.
In the English context, it is a short step from there to claim that soft power can substitute for duties and funding: capable local mayors should have little need of legal powers, money or organisational heft in order to get things done. This type of argument has pedigree, having been used with regard to the regional bodies created by John (now Lord) Prescott during the Blair/Brown governments.
What have the metro-mayors done?
Unlike the ‘regional assemblies’ of the 2000s, the ‘metro-mayors’ are not entirely dependent upon soft power. They have taken on a range of statutory powers and budgeted programmes from central government, and as such they will be directly accountable for real decision-making. For instance, they control an annual investment fund; funding from the Local Growth Fund; the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers; local transport funding; and (in due course) the Adult Education Budget. However, critiques have highlighted the number of related matters that remain outside mayors’ control. They will control public transport but not trunk roads: the Adult Education Budget, but not 16-19 skills policy or schools; land-use planning but not (in most cases) housing development. Faced with this patchwork of powers, the idea of ‘soft power’ offers a useful route for mayors to overcome the limits of their formal role.
There are plenty of examples of metro-mayors seeking to stamp their authority on particular local concerns, even when they have no duty to do so. They have done this through a variety of mechanisms. For instance, many mayors have established ‘commissions’ of knowledgeable individuals, to establish priorities in neglected policy areas (mental health, homelessness). These groups assemble data, process stakeholder perspectives, and produce reports with policy recommendations. Many areas have produced strategy documents: these bring stakeholders together to determine long-term priorities, building trust, and the document can then act as a public reference point for future decisions. Mayors have sought to represent their areas in national and international negotiations, and to speak for their localities in broader debates, such as the HS2 railway line and the Industrial Strategy. Collaborative initiatives have also emerged in matters, such as health and skills, where formal powers are shared between the mayors and other public bodies.
The resilience of ‘hard power’
However, the signs to date are that the new English metro-mayors have given a low priority to developing ‘soft power’. The websites of metro-mayors, and the ‘combined authorities’ that they head, give greater space to decisions to invest in the local economy via funding for business development and infrastructure; or to drive development of the local transport system. They have been active in distributing funding within their areas; exploring their formal powers, such as transport management; and demanding additional devolution of formal powers.
For instance, Andy Burnham has introduced half-price bus travel for under-18s in Greater Manchester. The West of England is investing £10 million in ultra-low emissions vehicle research. Collaborative arrangements for local components of the Work and Health Programme were replaced, in August 2017, with an entirely separate grant fund – i.e., replacing central-local partnership with a locally-owned programme. These observations indicate that mayors continue to view formal power as highly pertinent to their role - despite the claims made for the value of soft power.
Electoral considerations may play a role here. Valuing trust, relationships, and partnership – all components of ‘soft power’ – would attract little dissent from policy-makers. But they are hard to translate into a visible, dynamic narrative for a metro-mayor. Thus it is perhaps unsurprising that metro-mayors have referred to the distribution of their investment funds as “something tangible from this thing called devolution and this person called the metro mayor”, and stressed the need for “big policies that can make a step change”. This also explains why the mayors began to lobby for additional formal powers within weeks of the May 2017 elections. In November the mayors held a joint ‘summit’ to press the case for additional powers and funding with the Government; and a ‘Council of the North’ is in the pipeline, with a first meeting pencilled in for Newcastle in summer 2018.
But much continues to depend on the place that city-regional devolution plays within Government plans. Metro-mayors’ focus on funding for infrastructure, innovation and growth was reflected in the priorities of the November 2017 Budget – and in the focus of the White Paper on Industrial Strategy. The Budget announced substantial additional funding for devolved areas to take forward priorities shared with central government – most notably, the six metro-mayors will share £850m of the new four-year Transforming Cities Fund. This marks a shift from the Government’s previous approach. It indicates confidence in the metro-mayors as local ‘preferred partners’ for growth-related projects. But it may also presage less room for local initiative and more emphasis on strategic national priorities.
Further signs of a more national, co-ordinated approach appeared in the second West Midlands devolution deal, published alongside the Budget. This announced a broad range of joint initiatives between the West Midlands and the Government, but few new powers (the exception being an initial proposal to fold the police and fire authorities into the Mayor’s office, as in Greater Manchester). In an unpublished paper, the economic geographer Philip McCann finds evidence of a shift away from the local in the differences between the Green and White Papers on industrial strategy: “discussions about the need for new place-based institutions to better link industrial policy to regional development, which was being developed in the Green Paper, have almost entirely disappeared”.
Mayors leading grant coalitions?
If the approach emerging in late 2017 is an indicator of future relations, it could encourage metro-mayors to develop into ‘grant coalitions’, developing shared narratives, working relationships and capacity in order to unlock grant funding from the centre. This would be a familiar choreography to observers of UK local government. It recalls the plethora of ‘area-based initiatives’ and department-based funding lines initiated, then discontinued, through the 1990s and 2000s. A major critique of area-based initiatives was their short-term nature. This required repeated funding bids, causing organisational uncertainty and stifling attempts at long-term, strategic thinking. The ‘deal-by-deal’ character of English devolution to date risks recreating these difficulties: for this reason, it is regarded by many in the combined authorities as unsustainable in the long term.
But in the short term, developing into a ‘grant coalition’ may be the surest route to outcomes for the metro-mayors. The UK government’s stance towards English devolution has been less dynamic since the departure of George Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer in mid-2016. The combined authorities are new organisations, and will take time to develop institutional capacity and trust with local partners. In this scenario, lobbying for increased funds, and seeking out areas of common ground on policy, makes sense. It can generate quick and substantial wins, as in the 2017 Budget, whilst soft power generally takes longer to emerge and have impact.
The focus on powers and funds may also explain the metro-mayors’ relative neglect of matters of democracy and legitimacy. Though this too could be a potent source of ‘soft power’, metro-mayors have made only muted attempts to harness and augment support and participation from local electorates. This is despite extensive critiques of the earlier ‘devolution deal’ process on the grounds of secrecy and remoteness (for instance, see Tomaney 2016; Bailey and Wood 2017; Richards and Smith 2016). Some metro-mayors have initiated public-facing ‘ask the mayor’ events, but they have largely eschewed innovations such as citizens’ panels and assemblies, or encouraging participation in policy-making. This might seem like a missed opportunity to develop a local democratic voice, but it is more understandable if metro-mayors’ outcomes depend primarily on collaboration with the UK government.
Is soft power an illusion?
It would be easy to conclude that the English ‘metro-mayors’ will, in the longer term, place relatively little value on developing sources of soft power. Conventional governing activities - making decisions and distributing funds – are more visible and gratifying. Does this mean that ‘soft power’ refers to activity that is essentially superficial, and peripheral to mayors’ success at delivering outcomes?
In this regard, it is interesting to note a conclusion from a seminar between UK and USA mayors held by the Centre for Cities in December 2017. USA mayors attending the seminar were ‘astonished’ at the lack of ‘fiscal and regulatory’ powers available to UK mayors. But at the same time, the USA mayors described themselves as ‘leaders of their place’, with a ‘wider civic leadership role’ based on a formal core of powers (Jeffrey 2017). These types of soft power were not viewed as alternatives to formal powers, but as one amongst many tools for effective local governance.
This could suggest that soft power has been a low-profile dimension of English devolution to date because of metro-mayors’ limited hard powers. In other words, soft power might not be a substitute for strong formal powers: instead, it might grow in significance over time as hard power is accrued. If this were the case, it suggests that the idea of soft power replacing hard power is misplaced. The metro-mayors provide a rare opportunity to study whether this is true, by looking at how they try to transcend the apparent limits of their role.
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 recent papers and blogs on local government finance and English devolution. Previously he was a research fellow at the Constitution Unit, University College London (2000-05) and head of research at the Electoral Commission (2006-07). He tweets at @marksandford3.