Metro Mayors rose to the top of the political and media agenda this month as the stand-off between the Government and Andy Burnham over the appropriate level of financial support that areas placed in tier three should receive reached boiling point.
While Mr Burnham drew praise for his stance, I worry the disagreement will sour relations not just between the Government and the Greater Manchester Mayor but also between the Government and other metro mayors – particularly the Labour ones.
It would be a short-sighted mistake if, just when the Government had been planning to devolve more powers to places in the devolution White Paper, it decides that devolution just isn’t worth the hassle and shelves the whole idea.
Since England began devolving powers more than 20 years ago people have greatly benefited from having a directly elected leader who understands the changes that need to be made to improve their area. London’s transport system has been completely reformed and improved. Greater Manchester has introduced a UCAS-style system to get people into technical education. And Tees Valley has taken over the running of its previously failing airport.
Many of these improvements have happened under Conservative-led governments and the Prime Minister himself served two terms as Mayor of London. The Conservatives would be taking a huge step backwards if it turned away from realising the benefits that devolution can bring.
While it may not realise it now, the Government needs powerful and prominent metro mayors if it is to have any hope of delivering its levelling up agenda.
Many of the promises made in the 2019 Tory election manifesto – better bus services, adult education, housing – cannot be effectively delivered by national government. It needs metro-mayors and local partners to make them happen. And this is what they’ve been doing. Just before COVID-19 hit Mr Burnham was practically delivering on the Government’s levelling up plans by planning to introduce London-style bus improvements in Greater Manchester.
Whitehall cannot do everything, nor should it. So if metro-mayors are defunded and side-lined, or worse abolished, they will fail and then levelling up will fail, and ultimately the Government will fail.
Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities