The Global City: Lessons from Combined Authorities

Marc Vilalta Reixach

Over the last decades, we have been witness to a global phenomenon of increasing urbanisation of the territory. In many countries around Europe – among them, Spain – we can easily identify the trend towards the creation of large urban areas, which concentrate a large percentage of the population and plays an essential role in economic activity. Although, without a doubt, these new metropolitan spaces offer multiple opportunities for their inhabitants, they also pose important challenges, not only in the social, environmental or economic context but also in terms of their legal organization.

Indeed, the fact that the dimension of the great conurbations exceeds the administrative limits of a single municipality forces the different public authorities to seek legal instruments that allow them to face the common challenges posed by the administration of these spaces. For example, in Spain, although our legal system provide for the possibility to create real metropolitan governments, our public authorities have mainly opted to respond to this phenomenon through the use vertical collaboration or by creating specific metropolitan agencies. In fact, in Spain, only Barcelona has created a comprehensive level of metropolitan governance to organise this space (with the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona).

This failure is often explained in the Spanish literature by the configuration of the metropolitan areas as a formula not always desired by the municipalities (as it is imposed by law) or by those charged with creating them (the regions, Comunidades Autónomas), who have generally viewed them as a strong local counter-power.

This is why we decided to put on our attention to other comparative legal experiences. Although we are not trying to import techniques from other legal systems, we believe that the study of comparative law could help us to better understand and manage our own reality.

And, from this perspective, the English legal system provides a very interesting point of comparison, because, after numerous regulatory changes, a novel organizational solution has recently been established for large urban areas in England: combined authorities.

After analysing the legal regime of the English combined authorities, what insights can be gleaned from the study of combined authorities? In my opinion, the English combined authority model allows us to draw at least two main ideas that could be useful for the Spanish authorities in addressing the metropolitanization of our territory.

  1. Diversity and flexibility. One of the main characteristics of the English model is that combined authorities are configured – at least theoretically – in a variable, flexible way, both in terms of territorial boundaries and functions. This allows large urban areas to adapt their institutional organization to the specific requirements for each territory. In this sense, unlike Spanish metropolitan areas, the creation of the combined authorities has been seen as a bottom-up process, in which all the levels of government have played an active role (even when the political-partisan dynamics was not coincidental), promoting an attempt to decentralize England territorially.
  2. Democratic governance. The evolution of the combined authorities in England has allowed them to assume a notable variety of powers (in transport, housing,…), thus meaning that they play a more active role in the implementation of public policies at the metropolitan scale. Thus, this evolution has imposed on them a model of democratic governance, through the direct election of the metropolitan mayor. The metro mayor can contribute not only to strengthened leadership and external projection of combined authorities, but also to their democratic representativeness and to the creation of a metropolitan identity shared by the citizens of these territories. In my view, this is also an interesting idea, because even the metropolitan area of Barcelona (which is the metropolitan government with a greater degree of institutionalization) is indirectly elected and without a metro mayor.

Marc Vilalta Reixach is lecturer of Administrative Law at the University of Barcelona (Spain). His research focus on local government law, inter-administrative relations and public procurement law. During the last term he has been visiting researcher at the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) of the University of Birmingham.

 

What if December 12th were repeated in the May mayorals?

Chris Game

I’m not unrealistic.  I didn’t expect the Queen in the few hundred words written for her Queen’s Speech to chatter on that much about local government and councils – and she didn’t.  I did think, though, they might get some attention in the 150-page Background Briefing Notes.  But, no.  In the literally brief note on English Devolution (pp.109-10), ‘councils’ per se aren’t mentioned.  The search did, however, make me realise how crowded it’s going to be out there, as “each part of the country” gets “to decide its own destiny”.

The Government “remains committed” to the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, Western Gateway, and, I think, the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. The 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships certainly aren’t going anywhere soon.  Indeed, they may well be hoping to get their hands on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU Structural and Investment Funds. And quite possibly too on the PM’s own £3.6 billion Towns Fund, with, for starters, 100 Town Deal Boards, chaired “where appropriate” by someone from the private sector.

Then there are the UK Government agencies that Johnson wants to relocate out of London, with their existing civil servants or any who aren’t “super-talented weirdo” enough to pass the Dominic Cummings test.

The one democratic element of this increasingly crowded world that does receive more than a passing mention in the Briefing Notes are Mayoral Combined Authorities (CAs) and City Region Mayors, with talk of increasing the number of mayors and doing more devo deals. There weren’t many stats in this section, but one did catch my eye: “37 per cent of residents in England, including almost 50 per cent in the North, are now served by city region mayors with powers and money to prioritise local issues.”

With CA mayoral elections coming up in early May, I did a few quick sums. The current party split among the nine elected mayors, including London, is 5-4 to Labour.  The population split, though, is close to 3-1, with Mayor Andy Street’s West Midlands contributing over half the Conservative total.  And Street’s victory over Labour’s Siôn Simon in May 2017 was knife-edge: by 0.7% of the 523,000 votes cast.

I sense you’re ahead of me.  If, in the coming May elections, West Midlands voters were to return a Labour mayor, leaving Conservative mayors governing, say, barely one in eight of that 37% of residents, would a Conservative PM still be as enthusiastic about devolution to mayoral CAs?  We know for near-certain that Theresa May wouldn’t have been, but Johnson, as on most things, is less predictable. 

Anyway, it seemed worth asking: what would happen in the May mayoral elections, which include London this time, if everyone voted just as they did in December’s General Election?  Happily, Centre for Cities’ Simon Jeffrey got there first, so the stats are his, the interpretation mine.

First, though, a quick reminder of the broader context of those 2017 mayoral elections, and what’s happened since.  When Andy Street launched his bid for the West Midlands mayoralty, and even when he was officially selected as Conservative candidate, there looked like being only five of these new CA mayors.

Moreover, all five – Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions, Tees Valley, and West Midlands – might easily, given their borough councils’ political make-ups, have produced Labour ‘metro mayors’.  Whereupon, it seems likely that, to say the least, Prime Ministerial enthusiasm for serious devolution to metro mayoral CAs would have waned somewhat.

However, things changed. Sheffield’s election, following a dispute over the inclusion of Derbyshire local authorities, was postponed until 2018, and two far less metropolitan (and more Conservative-inclined) CAs were established – West of England (Bristol) and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – just in time for the 2017 elections. 

With Tees Valley also going Conservative, Prime Minister May saw an initially possible 0-5 redwash turn into a remarkable 4-2 triumph – as reported on this blog. The political merits and possibilities of devolution, particularly to the West Midlands – bearing in mind that Labour overwhelmingly controlled Birmingham Council and formed the largest party group in five of the other six boroughs – suddenly seemed much more obvious.

Since then, though, the pendulum has swung. A reconfigured Sheffield CA and new North of Tyne CA have both elected Labour mayors, evening up the CA party balance at 4-4, but giving a score among the now ‘Big 5’ metros (populations over 1.3 million) of 4-1 to Labour, including Greater London Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Jeffrey’s sums show that Mayor Khan would be re-elected easily, likewise Labour’s Steve Rotheram in Liverpool.  In Greater Manchester, Labour’s Andy Burnham would be re-elected, but with a considerably reduced majority.  And the collapsing ‘red wall’ would have more than doubled Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen’s majority in Tees Valley.

And so to the West Midlands, which also saw plenty of “Red wall turning blue”, “No such thing any more as a Labour safe seat” headlines. It felt as if the Conservative vote had to be ahead, and it was … but by under 3,000 out of 1.18 million, or 0.2%! 

Yes, even replicating the Conservatives’ most decisive electoral win for a generation, it could be that tight.  And, if it were Labour’s eventual candidate who edged it, that would see Labour metro mayors as the elected heads of government in London and all four largest city region CAs, representing nearly a third of the English population. ‘Everything still to play for’ seems an understatement.

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.