They have budgets stretching into the billions, almost all are men. They’re some of the most powerful people in the country, with the biggest personal mandates of any elected officials in the country. Most of them are probably people you’ve never heard of. They are…England’s metro mayors.
You’ll almost certainly have heard of Andy Burnham if you’re reading this piece. You may know vaguely who Tracy Brabin and Steve Rotheram are. But can you name the mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough? Or of the West of England? These people make decisions that affect millions. But with the exception of Andy Burnham taking on the government in autumn 2020, it’s rare that any of them make national headlines. So this regular feature will attempt to change that, and try to provide some reporting on what these metro mayors are doing (in the case of a previous mayor who stood down after one term: “not very much, except for a trial of e-scooters”). Where better to start than to give some background on these figures? So without further ado, meet the English metro mayors.
Andy Burnham (Labour) – mayor of Greater Manchester
You’ve probably heard of this guy. Former Labour MP for Leigh and health secretary turned Hillsborough justice campaigner, turned twice-unsuccessful candidate for Labour leader, turned now putative ‘King in the North’. First elected in 2017, having beaten Rochdale MP Tony Lloyd and then-Bury South MP Ivan Lewis in the selection, Burnham won every borough in that year’s election, and topped that off in 2021 by winning every single ward. His two flagship policies have been the “A Bed Every Night” scheme to reduce homelessness and rough sleeping in Greater Manchester (Burnham also donates a portion of his salary to fund the scheme), and the franchising of the city region’s bus services, scheduled to be rolled out over the next few years. Earning plaudits for his leadership during the current pandemic, his fight to keep Greater Manchester out of the highest level of restrictions and the government denying made national headlines. However Burnham has also faced criticism for failings in Greater Manchester Police (including an IT procurement issue and the loss of over 80,000 crimes last year), which he also oversees as the region’s de facto police and crime commissioner.
Dr Nik Johnson (Labour) – mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (Labour)
One of the surprise results of the 2021 local elections was Labour gaining this mayoralty from the Tories. Nik Johnson, a doctor and councillor in Huntingdonshire defeated James Palmer (a cousin of England footballer Nick Pope) on second preference votes. “Dr Nik” as he is apparently known locally was actually banned from describing himself as “Dr Nik Johnson” on the ballot paper (perhaps the Returning Officer thought people may confuse him with Dr Nick Riviera, the other well known Dr Nick). Having only been in the job two months he hasn’t done much yet, but he has promised to introduce bus franchising and to seek funding to build more houses (which will not be hard given Palmer managed to build a grand total of eleven houses as part of his “£100k houses” scheme, and had had £45 million of central government funding for more housing withdrawn), but has also cancelled the Cambridgeshire metro project started by Palmer, claiming the expected multi-billion pound price tag would make the project a white elephant.
Steve Rotheram (Labour) – mayor of the Liverpool City Region (no, I don’t know why they don’t just call it Merseyside either)
Much like his friend Andy Burnham, Rotheram was an MP; for Liverpool Walton from 2010 until the 2017 mayoral election. Rotheram won the Labour selection ahead of then-Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger and Joe Anderson, the then-city mayor of Liverpool proper (another mayoral post in the area, which has led to understandable confusion over the differences between the two roles and the powers they have). As mayor Rotheram has, like many of his colleagues, focused on transport. He halved bus fares for those studying apprenticeships, tying together two of the most common devolved areas: transport and adult skills and education. In both his first election and his re-election in 2021 Rotheram comfortably carried all the local authorities in the Liverpool City Region, as was probably expected in such a Labour stronghold. However, given recent political developments in Liverpool itself (the arrest of former Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and others on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation) Rotheram may have a trickier second term than expected.
Jamie Driscoll (Labour) – mayor of the North of Tyne
The second newest of the metro mayors, Jamie Driscoll was first elected in 2018. Having beaten Newcastle upon Tyne council leader Nick Forbes in the selection process, Driscoll won the election by a narrower than expected margin, failing to carry Northumberland whilst winning in Newcastle and North Tyneside. Driscoll is seen as being on the left of the Labour Party, and his manifesto in 2018 included a plank on community wealth building, proposing to replicate the “Preston Model” of attempting to procure and spend council money locally to reinvest in the local economy, and to set up a “People’s Bank” to invest locally in the North of Tyne, something which hasn’t been replicated by any other metro mayor. Driscoll also declared a climate emergency on his first day in office; and has also campaigned to reform the North East combined authority to oversee not just North of Tyne, but areas such as Sunderland, Durham and Gateshead. The ongoing realignment in British politics first started to appear in this region, so this may be an area to keep an eye on, although it is interesting that despite his more overtly radical left politics compared to other Metro Mayors, Driscoll has been unable to carve out a national profile for himself even in the way Ken Livingstone was able to do so in the 1980s.
Dan Jarvis (Labour) – mayor of the Sheffield City Region
Former soldier Jarvis is currently the only metro mayor with a second job in politics, as MP for Barnsley Central (many of the metro mayoralty regions have legal strictures against ‘double-jobbing’ as an MP and mayor). Jarvis has been Mayor of the Sheffield City Region – in practice South Yorkshire, taking in Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham – since 2018.
The devolution deal for Sheffield City Region has been bogged down by disputes over the area it should cover. It doesn’t include areas many would consider to be part of the actual city region, such as Chesterfield in Derbyshire or Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire, though those two areas – along with Bolsover, Derbyshire Dales and North East Derbyshire – are represented as non constituent members, meaning voters there do not actually get a vote for the mayor, although as with all combined authorities they are represented on the authority itself by the leader of each council. Other critics think that some form of devolution that covers all of Yorkshire is preferable to splitting it up into different combined authorities.
The Sheffield City Region is the least powerful of all the combined authorities, with only some responsibility for transport devolved. The role is also unpaid, allowing Jarvis to continue as an MP. However, Jarvis has also taken criticism for this double jobbing, and also recently for voting to enter into a partnership with bus operators, rather than commit to franchising (where councils and central government provide funding for things such as increased bus lanes in exchange for improved services, as opposed to the combined authority setting fares, routes and frequencies under franchising) as Andy Burnham has done in Greater Manchester.
Ben Houchen (Conservative) – mayor of Tees Valley
One of only two Conservative metro mayors, Ben Houchen’s narrow victory in 2017 was one of the first signs that the Tories were advancing in areas where they had historically struggled, but voted to leave in the 2016 EU referendum. Houchen’s initial margin of victory was little over 2,000 votes, which in 2021 turned into a staggering majority of over 75,000. Houchen won every single authority across the Tees Valley, which makes up much of the North East region south of Sunderland in 2021.
Houchen is locally seen as having made the most of the limited powers he has been given by central government, campaigning vigorously for largesse for the region from the government’s “levelling up” towns fund, and even calling for a “Green Industrial Revolution” on Teesside. Houchen’s track record includes bringing Teesside Airport back into public ownership and reintroducing daily flights to Heathrow, while alongside this launching the first Mayoral Development Corporation to redevelop the Teesport and Redcar’s old steelworks site.
Dan Norris (Labour) – mayor of the West of England
One of three new metro mayors elected this year, former Wansdyke MP Dan Norris flipped the West of England – Bristol, Bath and the surrounding area – from blue to red, following incumbent Tim Bowles’ decision to stand down (highlights of Bowles’ tenure include an e-scooter trial and achieving a paltry 7% name recognition figure, best summed up by even Boris Johnson being unable to name him in interview).
Having narrowly won a controversial selection process (where three of the five longlisted candidates seen as being on the left did not make it to the final ballot of members, leading the local Momentum group to encourage their members to abstain, only for Norris, the most right wing candidate, to win by 53 votes out of roughly 3000 cast), Norris won the election in spite of the Green advance in Bristol by reducing Tory margins in South Gloucestershire and nearly carrying the Bath and North East Somerset council area. As well as seeking to include North Somerset in the combined authority, Norris has pledged to launch a “Green Recovery Fund” to create 23,000 new green jobs, and has recently launched a COVID fund aimed at helping freelancers and the creative industry, offering grants of up to £3,000.
Norris has come in for criticism both for his record as an MP (having voted for the Iraq War and fallen foul of the expenses scandal), but also for his refusal to promise to introduce bus franchising, something other Labour metro mayors have already done or pledged to do. Norris has also clashed with Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, pouring cold water on Rees’s pledge to introduce an underground tube system for Bristol.
Andy Street (Conservative) – mayor of the West Midlands
The other Tory metro mayor, much like Ben Houchen, Street narrowly won in 2017 and increased his majority substantially in 2021 in an area of the country where Labour is almost in freefall. Street’s main campaign pledges have focused on transport, you may have seen the snazzy map that combines the heavy rail, tram and also “autonomous pods and people movers” in Coventry. Street is also the only openly gay metro mayor, and has mainly avoided using Conservative branding during his mayoralty, which may partially explain his overperformance in more Labour-leaning areas such as Birmingham compared to other Tory candidates. Street has also pledged to build over 200,000 homes across the region, and to make the region carbon neutral by 2041.
Tracy Brabin (Labour) – mayor of West Yorkshire
Former Coronation Street actress, ‘The Story of Tracy Beaker’ scriptwriter, and former MP for Batley and Spen, Tracy Brabin was elected mayor of West Yorkshire in May with a series of glittering endorsements – including, among others, current Doctor Who actor Jodie Whittaker, who hails from Skelmanthorpe in Kirklees. The first woman to be a metro mayor, Brabin’s election triggered the high profile Batley and Spen by-election narrowly held by Labour, as the West Yorkshire mayoralty also has police and crime commissioning powers which MPs are barred from holding.
Brabin’s campaign focused on job creation and also on transport, pledging to franchise the buses in the region, whilst also overseeing the creation of a new mass transit system to link Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and Halifax, finally ensuring the creation of a system in the largest European metropolitan area without a mass transit system.
Metro Mayors and Local Government will be a new regular feature of The Social Review’s, with at least one article a month on the subject. If you have an idea for an article, please read our pitching guidelines and send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org