Analysis

New mayors pledge to benefit infrastructure

The election of six new ‘metro’ mayors in England could provide stronger voices for the regions and a key part of the regional political landscape, writes Andy Walker.

May’s local elections saw the arrival of six new ‘metro’ mayors to lead combined authorities in England. Combined authorities are groups of councils working together to assume powers, devolved from central government, over matters such as transport, housing, planning, skills and economic development.

The areas which elected mayors were Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, West of England and the West Midlands. All have been granted a 30-year investment fund as part of devolution deals, but their duties vary from area to area. For example, Greater Manchester’s authority will have control over a £6bn health and social care budget, while Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the Liverpool City Region will have powers over planning for health and social care.

Labour were successful in two of their three strongholds in the north but lost to the Conservative’s Andy Street in the West Midlands. There was a narrow win for the Tories over Labour in the West of England and as expected, the Conservatives comfortably won Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. There was a shock in Tees Valley with a narrow win for the Conservatives. The new northern mayors in particular could be influential in shaping the devolution agenda as it gathers pace in the months and years ahead.

In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has boldly pledged to end homelessness by 2020 and will focus on building new affordable homes, improving local transport and enhancing opportunities for young people in his area. The infrastructure sector will welcome Burnham’s pledges which should lead to more work for the sector locally. Similarly, Liverpool’s Steve Rotheram is committed to improving housing, transport and opportunities for local young people and will be interesting to see how he works with his regional neighbour and close friend, Burnham, potentially delivering a North West Powerhouse in the future.

The Tees Valley saw a big upset with Conservative candidate Ben Houchen defying expectations to be elected as the new mayor, winning with a thin majority of 48,578 to Labour’s 46,400 in the second round of voting. Houchen made waves in the campaign after promising to use the mayor’s new £15m transport budget to bring Durham’s Tees Valley Airport back into public ownership. It will be interesting to see how he delivers those plans and also how the government and local businesses will respond.

Andy Street’s win for the Conservatives in the West Midlands was another surprise, if not on the same scale as the Tees Valley result. The ex-John Lewis CEO defeated Labour’s Sion Simon in the second round of voting with a majority of 3,766. This result will be particularly pleasing for the prime minister as it puts the party in a very influential position in the UK’s second city.

All the new mayors could form a significant part of the regional political landscape, providing stronger voices for their city regions, across the national and possibly international stage. One sobering factor though will be the relatively low turnouts in all the elections, with less than 30% of eligible voters voting and just a pitiful 21% turning out in the Tees Valley.

On the positive side, all the winning mayors have made pledges that should benefit the construction and infrastructure sector. In addition to Burnham and Rotherham’s promises to improve housing and transport, Andy Street in the West Midlands has prioritised skills and apprenticeships for young people, cutting congestion, improving transport, protecting the green belt and regenerating high streets.

In the West of England, Tim Bowles has pledged to re-open rail stations and increase services, support road improvements on the Avon Ring Road and M4 Junction 18a and the A36/46 link road and also protect green fields by promoting urban regeneration. James Palmer in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough has promised to improve the planning system to get more homes built, support a new university for Peterborough and improve transport in the region.

If the pledges made during their election campaigns are honoured, the arrival of these new metro mayors will be welcomed by the infrastructure sector which will undoubtedly benefit from the increased work that will arise from the delivery of their plans. It remains to be seen however whether these new regional political leaders will have real power and be able to generate the funding to put their ambitious plans into practice.

Thanks to Paul Dimoldenberg and Quatro PR for their input into this article.