Opinion: The case for a mayor for Greater Manchester  

In this article I’m going to make the case for a Mayor for Greater Manchester. I realise this isn’t going to be a popular position, particularly in Lib Dem circles. Our mayors – Dorothy in Watford and Dave in Bedford – are great of course. But what about Boris in London or that monkey in Hartlepool (twice re-elected) and don’t even get me started on Tower Hamlets. In the conversations I’ve had with Lib Dems, the word “mayor” is generally met with a look of horror.

But here’s the thing. About all those mayors have in common with what’s proposed for Greater Manchester is the name “mayor”. London, along with those councils who have opted for mayors, have “strong mayor” models. In these, the mayor is able to act alone. Typically they appoint their own cabinets with councillors or assembly members having little power to stop the mayor doing what he or she wants.

The Greater Manchester model is completely different. It isn’t a mayor to replace the leader of the council (an option Salford voted for and the City of Manchester voted against), nor is it the London model. Instead the Mayor of Greater Manchester will join the existing Combined Authority. The mayor’s cabinet will be made up of the ten council leaders, nine democratically elected as councillors plus the directly-elected Mayor of Salford. The mayor and councils need to work together to reach decisions – council leaders can block the mayor if they disagree with a policy.

I am being careful to talk only about a mayor for Greater Manchester, and there’s a good reason for that: I have no idea if the same model would be right for other areas. I think the Combined Authority is the right place for city-region decision making in Greater Manchester: it’s not perfect and certainly needs to improve on transparency and scrutiny, but it’s based on local councillors working together and in one guise or another has worked pretty well for thirty years. Whether either an elected mayor or a Combined Authority is the right answer for anywhere else I can’t say.

But if “it’s not Boris” was the only thing going for a Greater Manchester mayor it would hardly be a ringing endorsement. I might grudgingly accept it as the price of devolution, but I wouldn’t be singing its praises. There are three reasons why I am going further than that to positively advocate a GM Mayor.

First, with the Combined Authority taking on more powers locally than anywhere else in Britain, having a figurehead who’s directly elected by the people of Greater Manchester and answerable to them isn’t a bad idea. It will help open up the new powers to the right level of scrutiny from the people and media.

Second, as I argued in my recent articles on improving cities, Greater Manchester – and other similar areas – punch below their weight. For the city-region to achieve its potential it has to see itself as a city with a shared identity in addition to the other identities we all have. The evidence suggests that we can maximise the success of all the different parts of GM by doing that and I believe a Mayor will help.

Finally, I want Greater Manchester to be a major global player. I believe it can be, but it’s not there yet. It didn’t even make the list for the Economist’s ranking (pdf) of the 120 most competitive global cities (the only two British entrants were London at number 2 and Birmingham at 43, just behind Auckland, Tel Aviv and Miami). That’s just one study and the answers you get always depend on the measurements you use, but it would be foolish to say there isn’t a problem. Most cities around the world have a mayor, however that person might be chosen. Globally people tend to expect that a city will have a mayor, and expect to see that person out there selling their city to the world. Having a mayor isn’t going to transform Greater Manchester’s prospects on its own but it’s part of the answer.

Will it all work? There are no guarantees. We live in a democracy and the voters may well choose someone who ends up doing a poor job, but that’s a risk in any system. The right Mayor of Greater Manchester could open up the Combined Authority, bring our 2.7 million population together and promote our great city on the world stage. I say that’s a prize worth shooting for.

* Iain Roberts is the former leader of Stockport Liberal Democrats and Lib Dem Campaign Manager in Greater Manchester Mayoral election and for Cheadle constituency in the General Election

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25 Comments

  • From Manchester AGAINST having Mayor : You out of touch political elete once more imposing on the tax payer for more of your kind setting up jobs for when retire from parliament

  • Ian says he will set out the reasons for a Metro Mayor for Greater Manchester. Presumably that is to be in a subsequent posting?

    The idea that Saddleworth or Romily have a ‘common identity’ with Salford is ludicrous. Greater Manchester is booming. It has been doing very well under Lord Peter Smith’s co-ordination without an elected Mayor.

  • Iain Roberts 15th Jan '15 - 12:25pm

    Hi tez, I’m just putting forward my view. Because we would scrap the police and crime commissioner when we get the elected mayor, it doesn’t create more political positions and shouldn’t cost taxpayers more money. I think a mayor would be a net benefit to the taxpayers of Greater Manchester, though of course I accept there’s a lively debate to be had about that.

  • Iain, will the elected mayor be able to veto plans supported by a majority of council leaders?

  • Iain Roberts 15th Jan '15 - 12:42pm

    Duncan – it depends on the plans. For powers the combined authority already has, votes would be on a simple majority of the 11 members (10 leaders plus mayor) so 6 leaders would carry the day. For new powers linked to the mayor (e.g. Bus regulation) it takes 7 leaders to overturn the mayor’s view. On strategic planning everyone has to agree.

  • Thanks Iain. I think this will be a better governance structure than the one in Greater London, where the mayor basically gets autocratic power for 4 years. I still don’t think a mayor is really needed, and it does feel as though it has been imposed by Whitehall, but I will be interested to see how things pan out in practice.

  • Iain, I agree with you that what seems to be proposed for Manchester is not the Clown Autocrat system of Boris Johnson and London. From what you have written the plans for Manchester seem even worse. At least I can directly elect a member of the GLA in an attempt to hold the Mayor to account. It would seem that from what you say for Manchester the only way for an elector to hold the mayor to account is to ensure that 7 local authority leaders all think the same thing and ct together to stop the mayor. This is something that clearly cannot be achieved through the ballot box by ordinary voters or by political parties in any normal democratic way.

    Do you have any suggestions as to how it caould be achieved?

    Or have you just decided that some housing starts and oyster cards and maybe some delegation of duties from central government are worth it to forgt about the democratic processes that have been a feature of local councils for one hundred years?

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th Jan '15 - 1:41pm

    Sorry Iain but I find the comments of Tony Dawson and John Tilley more compelling.

    Rather than individual cities going off and doing their own thing – including deciding which surrounding communities are going to be mopped up into their mega-conurbations – we need a constitutional convention in order to decide some rules and what is best for England, its regions and communities.

    Manchester booming, just as with London, proves that economic investment rather than cuts create jobs and spread prosperity.

  • David Faggiani 15th Jan '15 - 1:44pm

    I’m from South Manchester, and I’m in favour of the ‘GMA’ Mayor model. That’s not to say it couldn’t have some more democratic tweaks, of course. Although I now live in London, I eagerly await the first elections, as a spectator. Bound to be Labour dominated, initially, of course. Hope there’s a lively Primary.

  • IAN I dispute it wont cost more For : the Mayor will pay him/her self 200k+ increase that after a short while , they will employ advisor / secretary team ETC Every Mayor so far has ended up costing more, only thing iv against police commissioners is to much power in one mans had a committee of councillors better to over see. So Scrap BOTH

  • Tony Greaves 15th Jan '15 - 4:24pm

    I am sorry you are selling out the people of Stockport in this way.

    It is of course all a naked power grab by Manchester (Labour) politicians for more power, more money, and to hell with the rest of the world (or rather the North of England, which may be the same thing). A recipe for places like Stockport, Bolton and Rochdale to be shafted, and as for the rest of us who are beyond the pale (ie the GM boundary), just peasants to be left to stew in our backwaters…

    Tony Greaves

  • Iain Roberts 15th Jan '15 - 5:17pm

    George- the Combined Authority is, as the name suggests, the ten Councils, not just council leaders. For example, I’m not a council leader but sit on the Police & Crime Steering Group and the Audit Committee, with other councillors playing many other roles across the CA.

    As for your other point, I can very happily tell you about the powers because that point couldn’t be clearer in the agreement the councils have signed up to. There is no transfer of powers from the councils to the combined authority. None at all. All the new powers are being passed down from Westminster.

    (Quality Contracts – great idea, shame they don’t work. Anywhere.)

    Tony – an evidence-free personal attack on me – I’d expect nothing less.

    Stephen – I’m not sure where the idea of GM “mopping up” places comes from. The boundaries of Greater Manchester were set more than 30 years ago and I’ve not heard any suggestion from anyone that they be changed. If you want to be back here in ten years time having achieved precisely nothing and improved the lives of people not one bit, I agree a constitutional convention is a great way for people to spend time and money. I’m not saying there aren’t alternative ways of doing things, but sometimes you need to get on a do stuff, improve people’s lives, not just talk about it.

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th Jan '15 - 7:56pm

    Iain, my actual words were: “Rather than individual cities going off and doing their own thing – including deciding which surrounding communities are going to be mopped up into their mega-conurbations”. I did not single out Manchester – in fact I had Liverpool/Merseyside in mind if it helps. That is not to say I do not know of many living in Wigan and Rochdale Lancashire!

    As for your “The boundaries of Greater Manchester were set more than 30 years ago and I’ve not heard any suggestion from anyone that they be changed.”, well you can’t have been listening.

    The Tories 1974 redrawing of the boundaries were far from being the success you seem to imagine. If you haven’t seen or heard the still ongoing complaints about those changes then you need to pay a visit to specsavers as they say.

    A North West region covering Lancashire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside would be a much more socially and economically coherent and powerful unit.

  • Iain Roberts 16th Jan '15 - 7:12am

    Stephen – I’m sure that you’re right about the boundaries being contentious, but I’d suggest picking ones everyone agrees on is an impossibility. My point is simply that there is no “land grab” – the boundaries that have been in place for four decades are not changing.

    George – Well done for criticising the Guardian’s reporting 🙂 You’re mistaken about the powers: they aren’t passing powers up from councils but pulling them down from Westminster. I’ll have a look about writing more on the powers at some point. All the documentation we have at the moment is on the DCLG website I think, and negotiations are ongoing to work out some of the finer details as you’d expect.

    But I can clear up a couple of misunderstandings:

    – there is no power for regulated buses under quality contracts and that’s the single biggest issue for us.
    – the £30 million a year isn’t “a share of business rates anyone can apply for” – it’s a reworking of the Earnback model in such a way that we can actually get our hands on the money now, and quite separate to business rates.
    – there is no pooling of LA budgets

    I accept that the Combined Authority model has its downsides, as any model does. Anyone who says they’ve come up with a way to do this with no negatives is a fool! I think the GMCA needs to be improved, but my view is we should build on something that works well, not jump to something else that’s completely untried.

  • Tony Dawson 16th Jan '15 - 2:08pm

    Funny how Nick Clegg ensured there was no Metro Mayor for Sheffield City Region. Merseyside Councils and people don’t want one for Liverpool City region. Only Greater Manchester has to be lumbered with one because it’s in George Osborne’s back yard. 🙁

  • Stevan Rose 16th Jan '15 - 7:03pm

    I actually like what Boris has done in London. I actually liked Ken Livingstone before him. I travel to London most weeks and am envious of the fantastic public transport. Boris and Ken are/were big hitters who act/acted independently in the interests of Londoners. They can do that in London, London swings both ways. I fear a GM Mayor will be a permanent Labour party nominee position. We’ve voted once, we said no (I said yes then but yes lost and that’s the end if it). The “right” mayor might make it work, but reality is we’ll get whoever Ed Miliband says can have it.

    On the matter of ownership of Stansted, as a part owner via my council tax, I propose that Manchester Airport now takes over Heathrow and solves the runway issue by moving it 200 miles in a North Westerly direction. Easy.

  • David wilkinson 17th Jan '15 - 1:00pm

    I cannot agree with Iain on a GM Mayor, its a Manchester idea for Manchester, even Iain keeps using the word city and Greater Manchester is not one city, its not even 10 boroughs, the idea of local communities as been thrown away.

    When the GM Combined Authority was set up, we were told don’t worry there’s no need for a Mayor and because the GMCA is such a great idea you will be given more powers from government.
    Well that’s not happened, we have ended with a Mayor and a few crumbs off George Osbourne in terms of powers.

    The idea that you a need Mayor to get an Oyster card is a joke, you need a strong Transport Authority with real powers.

    Tony Greaves is right about what will happen in the years to come in Greater Manchester, even if it’s in his blunt style and upsets Iain.

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