At a workshop hosted in early November by City-REDI, INLOGOV,The Public Services Academy at the University of Birmingham practitioners and academics from the world of local government came together to share experiences on the current Combined Authorities and city-region devolution agenda. In the second of a series of posts Max Lempriere, a doctoral researcher studying the formation of combined authorities, reflects on the days major talking points. This blog is also posted on www.lgnk.org.
One recurring theme that stood out in our discussions on potential problems with establishing effective systems of leadership and governance for Combined Authorities and mayors was the integral role that the mayor needs to play to develop and maintain collective and collaborative models of leadership. Previously in this series of posts we saw that the mayor needs to tread carefully to neuter clashes of identity, but their skill-set needs to extend far wider.
First, they need diplomatic skills. They will need to tread a careful path between council Leaders and Chief Executives. Leaders in particular are used to having the last say over key policy and political decisions affecting their areas. It isn’t overly cynical therefore to expect that the arrival of a new (directly elected) kid on the block is bound to cause additional tensions. Many of the mayors will be ‘independents’ free of the constraints and pressures resulting from the need to balance conflicting views within the group and the council. Even if mayor and combined authority leaders represent the same political party this isn’t enough to guarantee congruence of visions and policies. If the mayor has a different vision to the existing Leaders members it is unclear how this tension will be reconciled. Importantly, he or she will need to rely on the support of constituent council Leaders for approval of the budget, meaning that unless internal unity can be achieved the mayor may prove to be somewhat of a lame duck.
Second, they need a thick skin. Osborne’s idea is that mayors act as a single point of accountability for both local citizens and central government officials. The logic behind this is commendable, but it may leave the mayor between a rock and a hard place. Central government (and in particular the Treasury) has made it clear in the various devo-agreements that central oversight is built into the governance arrangements, so there may well be pressures for arms-length control of combined authorities through the mayor. Yet their allegiances lie with the combined authority; can they please both at once? Unlikely. Will this leave them open to criticism from either side? Probably.
Third, they need to be electable. Ultimately it is down to voters to decide whether or not to keep the mayor in a job, so they need to work hard to keep the public on board. Will this be possible? One danger is an expectations gap amongst voters, who misunderstand what falls inside and outside the mayor’s legislative remit. What’s more, the mayor as an institution doesn’t yet garner widespread public support, meaning that any attempted power-grabs are likely to be fiercely resisted. Similarly, it is likely that whenever the combined authority is seen to falter the mayor will be in the firing line, regardless of whether it was central government, Combined Authority members or the mayor themselves that are strictly to blame. The mayor is designed to be the accountable figurehead of the authority, but they should be careful not to oversell themselves or raise voter expectations. Without public support they lack legitimacy, without legitimacy the mayor cannot lead the combined authority and without effective leadership the combined authority is weakened.
The list goes on, but the point is simple: the mayor will have to foster internal political coherence, legitimize both themselves and the authority and be accountable both downwards and upwards. Quite how difficult these tasks will be to achieve depends on the particular power arrangements in place across different Combined Authorities and how much power has been given to elected-mayors. Nevertheless, if done right they can act as a strong figurehead for the new authorities, bringing together constituent members and powers to create something bigger than the sum of its parts and that is both resilient and durable over time. If done badly we could have a combined authority lacking in legitimacy, a vilified public figure that further disengages people away from politics and a prolonged exercise in blame shifting.
Because of the novelty of the metro-mayor and combined authority arrangements no one really knows what to expect. This could be perceived as a risk. Indeed in some areas, notably Yorkshire, disagreements at the outset over power sharing between the Combined Authority and Mayor have derailed plans.
However, it should also be seen as an opportunity. We should hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
This series of workshops is being supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and is led by Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV and SOLACE’s Research Facilitator for Local Government.
Max Lempriere is a final year PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include flexible institutional design, local government policy making, the politics of sustainable planning and construction and ecological modernisation.