What are metro mayors and combined authorities?

In 2021, several regions across the UK will elect metro mayors. Find out how metro mayors came about, what a combined authority is and the powers metro mayors have in your region.

18 Dec 2020

Metro mayors are elected leaders of combined authorities, a group of local authorities that come together to set strategies and to attract and direct investment across the whole area covered by these local authorities.

The combined authority is meant to operate across an area connecting where people live and where they work and access other key services (known as a “functional region”) extending beyond a single local council area.

The metro mayor chairs the combined authority board which is made up of leaders of the constituent local authorities.

The local councils who make up the combined authority will co-operate on key areas identified in their devolution deals (see below).

These areas tend to include things like transport and economic development but, since the devolution deals are negotiated between the local authorities and national government, different metro mayors will have different powers and resources.

The origin of metro mayors

Metro Mayors were established through the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. The legislation set out the responsibilities of the metro mayor and their accountability.

It also ensures that having a metro mayor is a prerequisite for the combined authorities to possess powers and resources. For instance, the North East Combined Authority which covers County Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland does not have a metro mayor as it hasn't yet agreed a devolution deal with national government and, therefore, has significantly fewer powers and resources.

Why doesn't my area have a metro mayor?

The government's devolution agenda aims to address the imbalance of the economy in England and the supposed under-performance of some of the country's major cities.

The agenda has primarily targeted big cities outside of London, and the establishment of combined authorities (and subsequently metro mayors) in those cities is one of the key outcomes.

To establish a metro mayor in their area, local councils must first come together to establish a combined authority. The combined authority then agrees a devolution deal with national government.

To date, combined authorities representing around 20% of England outside London (by population) have agreed devolution deals, but the government’s forthcoming Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper (likely to be published in 2021) will pave the way for more metro mayors to be established.

Why are metro mayors important to climate and nature?

The devolution deals agreed between combined authorities and national government vary from region to region, but generally cover key sectors (see below) that are crucial to tackling climate change and improving the natural environment.

Transport

Metro mayors are responsible for directing investment in transport infrastructure.

On the positive side, metro mayors can significantly improve public transport and, crucially, the Bus Services Act 2017 grants automatic franchising powers to metro mayors. This means that metro mayors can decide on what routes bus operators in their area are required to run.

However, metro mayors can also enable road building schemes to be developed, through a consolidated transport budget and control over the local road network.

Economic development

In mayoral combined authorities, the mayor is responsible for developing and delivering a Strategic Economic Plan for the area, which sets the business growth priorities for the plan period.

Some metro mayors have the power to establish mayoral development corporations in specific areas for particular kinds of development. Mayoral development corporations would have the power to acquire and develop land, provide infrastructure in that area and create subsidies and incentives for businesses to invest in the area.

Currently, two mayoral development corporations have been established (in Stockport town centre in Greater Manchester, and at the former SSI steelworks in the Tees Valley).

There are potential opportunities to use mayoral development corporations to stimulate a low carbon economy through the creation of green jobs.

Metro mayors also have control over the adult education budget – a valuable tool in the potential reskilling of workforces to take up these new jobs.

Planning

Some metro mayors also have powers under their devolution deals to produce spatial development strategies. These set out planning policies in line with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The NPPF requires spatial development strategies to include policies on the following, but leaves some discretion on whether to include other issues:

  • provision for housing, employment, retail & leisure, commercial
  • infrastructure
  • community facilities (e.g. health, education, culture)
  • natural, built and historic environment (including climate change).

Links to spatial development strategies, where they exist, can be found in "existing devolution deals" below.

What powers does my metro mayor have?

The easiest way to find out what individual powers your metro mayor has is to read the devolution deal for your mayoral combined authority. We have included a link to these for each of the metro mayors in "existing devolution deals" below.

Other key documents to search online for are:

  • The strategic economic plan, which sets out the economic direction of your mayoral combined authority, if you have one.
  • Any emerging spatial development strategies being developed by the metro mayor.

What about the Mayor of London?

The Mayor of London was established following a referendum in 1999 by the Greater London Authority Act, and the first election was won by Ken Livingstone in May 2000. The mayor has acquired more powers over the years from subsequent legislation.

They have significantly more powers than metro mayors, but along the same broad themes. These include:

  • Strategic planning, including housing and infrastructure, through the development of the London Plan, including the right to permit or refuse planning permission on strategic grounds.
  • Transport planning and policy, including the operation of Transport for London and initiatives such as the congestion charge and the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ).
  • Economic development, including the power to create mayoral development corporations. There are two existing mayoral development corporations – the London Legacy Development Corporation (at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) and the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (focusing on Crossrail and HS2).

What next for metro mayors?

While the development of devolution deals and metro mayors has been initially focused on the bigger cities outside London, the government’s stated intention is to roll out metro mayors to more areas around the country.

The Conservative manifesto for the 2019 General Election set out an ambition for "full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors." The Queen's Speech in December 2019 echoed this by committing to publish a Devolution White Paper which would "level up powers between mayoral combined authorities, increase the number of mayors and do more devolution deals."

The Devolution White Paper was expected to be published in 2020, but has been delayed until 2021.

However, the government has started the pathway towards devolution by beginning devolution deal negotiations in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire, and inviting proposals from councils in North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Somerset for how to create unitary authorities from the current two-tier system.

Existing devolution deals

Details of devolution deals and key strategies by mayoral combined authorities.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough: The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Devolution Deal was agreed with government in March 2017. It set out new powers on transport, planning and skills, with a £600 million 30-year investment fund and £170 million to deliver 72,000 homes over the next 15 years. Since the deal was signed, the mayor has agreed the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Local Industrial Strategy (PDF), is developing its Local Transport Plan and started work on a non-statutory spatial framework in 2018.

Greater Manchester: The Devolution Deal between Greater Manchester and government in November 2014 was the first signed in an area outside London. The initial deal (which included powers over transport, strategic planning, housing and skills development) has been subsequently strengthened to give more extensive powers, including that of waste disposal and responsibility for health and social care.

Liverpool City Region: The Liverpool City Region Devolution Deal was agreed with government in November 2015. Further powers were agreed in 2016, leading to the first election for metro mayor in May 2017 (won by Steve Rotheram). Liverpool City Region Mayoral Combined Authority is currently developing its first spatial development strategy.

North of Tyne: The North of Tyne Devolution Deal was agreed with government in November 2018. Transport powers were conferred on a Joint Committee covering the North of Tyne and North East Combined Authority areas (ie, the whole North of East of England outside the Tees Valley).

Sheffield City Region: A devolution deal was agreed between Sheffield City Region and government in July 2020. Dan Jarvis was elected mayor in 2018 under interim pre-deal arrangements, with the next election scheduled for May 2022.

Tees Valley: The Tees Valley Devolution Deal was signed in October 2015 and the first election was won by Ben Houchen in May 2017. The mayor established the first mayoral development corporation, South Tees Development Corporation, on the former SSI steelworks site on Teesside.

West Midlands: The West Midlands Devolution Deal was initially agreed in November 2015 with a further deal agreed in November 2017. The initial deal included a 30 year £1.08 billion investment fund and conferred transport powers onto the combined authority. The second deal provided funding for a Housing Delivery Board and a £250m allocation to be spent on local intra-city transport.

West of England: The West of England Devolution Deal was agreed in March 2016 and included a £900 million investment fund over 30 years. In Autumn 2020, the combined authority started work on developing a West of England Spatial Development Strategy.

West Yorkshire: In March 2020, the Government published a proposed Devolution Deal for West Yorkshire. This is currently going through a process of consultation and ratification by each local authority and the combined authority with the final deal expected to be published in January/ February 2021 paving the way for mayoral elections in May 2021.

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