Metro mayors show imbalance of devolution

The new metro mayors in England are all men and so are most of their cabinets.

As six new metro mayors approach their first 100 days in office, Roseanne Green asks why there is such an absence of women in these new regional political powerhouses. 

Our six metro mayors are fast approaching their 100th day in power. Overshadowed by the subsequent general election result and, with atrocities in Manchester and London naturally transferring national attention, the metro mayors first few months as frontrunners of devolution may have passed some by with relative immateriality. As such, with top teams now in place, many might have missed an obvious omission within the regional devolution structures, that being the near complete lack of women - not just amongst the metro mayors, but within their cabinets. 

Steve Rotheram has a nine, all-male cabinet overseeing the Liverpool City Region which is made up of around 1.5 million people, and the story is a similar one throughout all six devolution regions. Only Greater Manchester and Tees Valley have (one or two) women on the top team. It is reckoned that among the metro mayors and their top teams, 94% are male. 

This is not necessarily a reflection of the mayors themselves. As an example, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has resolved to achieve a gender-balanced combined authority in his manifesto and has further committed to rejecting invitations to appear on all-male panels. There is also an inhibitor of the devolution deals which requires the combined authority cabinet to be made up of the leaders from each local authority and so the real root of the problem falls with the bias of local government. Only one in seven, of the 352 England local government leaders, are women.

It seems the (perhaps most obvious) solution - that of enforcing combined authorities to broaden and diversify - would face constitutional and democratic difficulties. Due to the principle of devolution being the transfer of power to local government, co-opted members may not be well received by the existing local leaders of our combined authorities. 

Change needs to come in a more strategic and long-term format. Local government and political party barriers prejudicing women need to be lifted (for instance, only 4% of councils in England have a maternity, paternity or parental leave policy for councillors) making politics, particularly senior level local politics, more accessible and appealing.

With Andy Street in the West Midlands looking on the brink of securing a second devolution deal with Whitehall and the Northern Powerhouse making headlines in recent weeks, devolution continues to shape the agenda in our regions. However, local government and relatedly devolution’s, shortfall leaves a democratic shortfall. Diversity brings with it different and wide-ranging abilities and judgement, and ensures there is affinity between decision-makers and their constituents. 

For devolution to be an enduring success, all-inclusive representation (and not just on a gender basis, but for all minorities) is needed and far too-long awaited.

Roseanne Green is a consultant with Iceni Engagement.