A new breed of leaders is reshaping England’s political landscape. As voters across England’s regions prepare to elect eleven mayors, their choices could signal seismic shifts in power dynamics and infrastructure priorities. With implications echoing far beyond local borders, will the Conservative government’s dismal performance in the polls be reflected in tomorrow’s results?

The idea that directly elected mayors might claw back power from Westminster and rejuvenate England’s provincial urban centres received tremendous backlash when it was floated by New Labour in the early 2000s. Since the Localism Act 2011, however, the mayoral model has gradually become entrenched in the British system. The Conservative government’s levelling-up agenda has bestowed increasingly wide-ranging executive powers upon new metro-mayors – most notably over infrastructure, housing, and the built environment. With Labour’s promise to ‘unleash mayors’ if successful at the next general election, the importance of this Thursday for the future of English infrastructure should not be underestimated. Spurning on the rise of the mayors are Jeremy Hunt’s ‘trailblazer’ devolution deals in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, unlocking new fiscal tools and responsibilities for things like policing (causing considerable tension with the regional PCCs).

Northwest With widespread public support for the integrated TfL-style ‘Bee Network’ and fresh thinking on technical education, Manchester’s Andy Burnham enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls. Burnham has used his position to vocally criticise the Conservative government’s stagnating Northern Powerhouse Rail project and the cancellation of the Manchester-Birmingham leg of HS2. Last week, Burnham and Liverpool’s metro-mayor Steve Rotheram proposed the creation of a Liverpool-Manchester Railway Board, hoping for a two-stop connection between their cities and Manchester airport. Burnham has also promised extensions to the Metrolink tram system, whilst Rotheram has blazed his own trail on rail devolution and guaranteed three new Mersey rail stations if re-elected. In their new book, Head North, the pair criticise English regional inequalities and the Westminster bubble which sustains them, envisaging a new political settlement forged by powerful regional champions with broad base popular support.

 

West Midlands

The future of the other Andy is less clear. The West Midlands Mayor has maintained his popular image as a safe pair of hands for business and growth, campaigning on his record as champion of local enterprise and on new promises of inward investment and jobs.

An avid supporter of HS2, Street has worked with his Manchester counterpart to offer a range of alternatives to improve the rail connection between the two cities and has secured billions of reallocated investments for the ambitious Midlands Rail Hub. But polls show that Street has suffered on account of wider Tory Turmoil, despite the financial woes of the Labour-lead Birmingham City Council which effectively declared bankruptcy last September. Accusations of financial mismanagement in the council seem not to have harmed Labour’s mayoral candidate Richard Parker, who has spent the last few months with a 14-pt. lead – although more recent polls hint that the election may be closer than this. It certainly will not just be the test of Street’s policies and force of personality, but a measure of the independence of mayors from national party trends in general. If the public understands that mayoralties are a very different type of political office with specific

powers that can be leveraged against their Westminster parties, then the mayors are likely to continue their rise in power and number in years to come.

 

Tees Valley

The controversy surrounding Ben Houchen’s South Tees Development Corporation is a good example of what is at stake. Houchen was the first mayor outside of London to use new powers to create such bodies in 2017. It has allowed him to transform 4,500 acres of Teesside’s forgotten industrial brownfield into the UK’s largest free port and green industrial hub. Mayoral Development Companies (MDCs) such as South Tees can bulldoze through restrictions and compulsorily purchase property, but critics allege that these obscure public bodies can suffer from a lack of transparency and scrutiny. As the cross-party Commons Business and Trade Committee calls for a national audit into the Teesworks project, questions over the value for money on taxpayer investments remain palpable as we move into polling day. Nevertheless, Houchen won an impressive 72.7% of the vote in 2021 and is predicted to hold against Labour challenger Chris McEwan, despite wider Conservative Party disarray.

 

North Yorkshire

Urban development is also a key political battleground in North Yorkshire, where Tory candidate Keane Duncan’s most talked about promise has been to buy and restore Scarborough’s landmark Grand Hotel. Selby and Ainsty’s MP Keir Mather called the policy a ‘gimmick’, but Duncan’s plan to drive redevelopment in Scarborough through a new MDC suggests that the 29-year-old former journalist understands how mayoral powers can be harnessed to meet popular demands.

The incumbent Mayor for the North of Tyne, Jamie Driscoll, has a wider vision. Driscoll succeeded in negotiating the largest investment pot out of all the Combined Authorities in 2020. Among his promises are a fully integrated transport network, and like Burnham he has placed an emphasis on land value uplift to harness the social benefits of public investment. Running as an independent candidate for the new Northeast mayoralty after Labour controversially disqualified him for selection, Driscoll will cause some headache for Labour’s Kim McGuiness, who is only marginally leading in the polls.

 

London

With all these exciting developments for infrastructure and development on the cards, it’s hard not to turn to the capital with an ounce of bathos. Many of the ambitious plans from Sadiq Khan’s 2016 and 2021 manifestos have been suspended or are still in the works, such as Crossrail 2, the DLR extension to Thamesmead, and the extended Bakerloo line. Perhaps cautious of overpromising, Khan has pivoted from his earlier enthusiasm for development and chosen instead to lead on cost-of-living palliatives such as a transport fares freeze and free school meals for primary school children. His major construction promise is a not unimpressive 40,000 new council homes, with at least 6000 rent-capped in line with local salaries. Having struggled to convince Westminster to let him freeze London rents, the build-to-cap approach is an interesting tactic.

Most commentators agree that Khan’s Conservative challenger Susan Hall has made a mess of her campaign. Hall’s chances lie in leveraging the widespread dissatisfaction with Khan’s record on crime and appealing to popular resentment over the ULEZ issue, but few think that she can make up the numbers. On the other hand, the introduction of voter IDs and changes in the voting system will certainly cause some damage for Kahn, as Lib Dem and Green voters who prefer Labour to the Tories can no longer cast a second-choice vote for him.

 

Facing the Future

Today’s elections are a sign of changing times. Metro mayors are quietly revolutionising the English constitution and reshaping the political context in which major infrastructure takes place. Power in England is being hived off to directly electable popular leaders with personal brands and programmes to develop their regions. This process will offer opportunities for everyone in the sector, but, if it is to continue, mayors still have work to do to justify their office to the wider public. With that in mind, the outcome of Thursday’s elections will tell us much about the rise of the mayors.