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Since 2014, a new political institution has been added to the compound landscape of subnational governance in England: directly elected Combined Authority (CA) mayors, or ‘metro mayors’. These figures were created by the former Chancellor, George Osborne, with the ambition of providing a single point of leadership and accountability in the delivery of new devolution deals.

Metro mayors have been tasked with a very difficult mission: to provide strong leadership, engage in bargaining with council leaders and central government, while also boosting local economies, tackling economic divides, and improving democratic engagement. But formal powers granted to metro mayors are limited and their funding is often insufficient to deliver change at the scale required. By the time of their first election in 2017, some commentators argued that metro mayors were essentially ‘set up to fail’ and take the blame for any mismanagement of devolution deals and for delivering austerity.

What is their evolving role in the context of local governance, and in what way – if at all – are they making an impact?

How place matters

The results indicate that metro mayors are maturing as institutions, and they have started to take root in the public imagination – as reflected in the level of turnout, which increased across the board. In short, the picture emerging from the results of the 2021 CA mayoral elections seem to suggest that there’s a growing desire for a more localised form of politics. This, however, is broadly in contrast with the government’s and opposition parties’ subnational governance vision, which continues to be mostly top-down. The case of the two metro mayors who were re-elected in 2021 with the highest level of support (Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester) helps to explain how and why place matters.

During his first mandate, Houchen achieved significant goals: saving Teesside airport from closure by taking it under public ownership, securing green jobs, a freeport, a new ‘Treasury North Campus’ in Darlington, and championing the regeneration of the Redcar steelworks. These targets have a powerful symbolic dimension linked to place, belonging and local pride. His mission also aligned very closely with the ‘levelling-up’ agenda, and the government had a direct interest in backing the mayor and making the Tees Valley its ‘pet region’. In this way, Houchen has built a profile as a facilitator of central government strategies, but with a strong tie to local interests, which is crucial to his success. What remains unclear, however, is whether and how the concerted effort from the government and Houchen staged in the Tees Valley can be sustainable in the long term, and whether it will deliver any real levelling up.

In Greater Manchester, Burnham used opportunity structures of a different nature. He developed a local leadership style that challenges the government approach to ‘level up the country’, calling for more devolved powers to the CA, so that decisions can be taken and shaped locally. This led to a more oppositional relationship with the centre, as epitomised by the standoff between Burnham and the Prime Minister over the allocation of Covid-19 support packages. But this approach also allowed Burnham to build the image of a local leader who puts place before party politics and stands up to the government in the interest of GM and its people. As such, Burnham managed ingrain a sense of place, belonging and identity within GM, which is largely artificial area. Through bargaining and transactions with local actors/networks (CA councils, business, the third sector, etc.), Burnham delivered on a range of policy areas, including providing free bus travel for young people, tackling homelessness and promoting the creation of good and fair jobs.

Despite the limits to their formal resources, Houchen and Burnham exercised power and agency, drawing on linkages upward and across, developing distinctive styles of leadership. The success of both mayors was related to their ability to articulate local interests, belonging and identity and to be perceived as leaders who stand up for their areas—showing that place matters and it can bring rewards at the ballot box. Conversely, the incumbent mayors who lost their seats in May 2021 were not able to ‘harness the power of place’, or to project themselves as ‘champions’ of their localities.

Against the (national) tide?

The 2021 metro mayor elections saw significant results for Labour. While in general elections the party is losing ground in its traditional strongholds, in CA mayoral contests it manages to hold in these areas, and it is also making inroads in ‘blue wall’ CAs. This suggests that Labour can still win in its heartlands when it embraces an approach to politics that is place-based and speaks directly to the needs of local communities. So far, the focus on the national dimension (and infighting), has meant the Labour party has not taken onboard these lessons, despite these being the only contests, along with the mayoral elections in London, where the party is currently winning in England.

Overall, the results of the second metro mayor elections show that ambitious mayors have been able to carve out more space, informal powers and opportunities than initially envisaged—acting as wedges in the cracks opened up by devolution deals and exacerbated by the pandemic, that could help reboot localism. This reminds us that devolution is a process, not an event, and once set in motion it cannot be fully controlled by the centre. And yet, the lack of constitutional protection for subnational governance institutions is a systemic weakness that, ultimately, leaves most the cards in the hands of the centre—suggesting that the future of metro mayors and devolution is still far from settled.