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The role of England’s metro mayors in the COVID-19 recovery

On 7 May 2020, we should have seen the election of a new generation of metro mayors for the combined authorities across England. However, due to the inability to enforce safe social distancing, either at the polling booth or on the campaign trail, the vote has been pushed back to 2021. Despite the election’s delay we predict that, over the next twelve months and beyond, metro mayors will have an increasing voice and role to play as communities turn towards the future and their road to recovery after COVID-19. Here we set out how, in this difficult time, mayors can rise to the challenge and develop their role as experimenters, advocates, listeners and spenders.

Cities as the stage for the post-COVID recovery

In the middle of a global pandemic, much of public attention has been on national-level responses and the global cooperation needed to tackle the imminent threat, flatten the curve of transmission and limit the tragically high number of lives taken by the virus. While immediate responses to the pandemic continue, increasing thought is being given to when and how we open up the economy again and what our lives will look like in the recovery period and beyond. Most of the key decision-makers acknowledge there will be no “back to normal” as the crisis wanes and plenty argue that this is not desirable anyway.

As people develop a vision for their communities in a post-COVID world, place-based policymaking will become increasingly important. The pandemic has undoubtedly altered our relationships with the places we live. From emerging local responses such as mutual aid groups, through to the uneven impact of the pandemic on communities and economies across the UK, where we live has been central to how we experience the pandemic. For months, we will have shopped on our local high streets, explored the areas in walking distance from our houses and talked to neighbours perhaps more than ever. It's not hard to imagine that people will want to retain elements of this in their lives, as they reflect on the lifestyles they want to return to.

We’re already seeing local authorities and city governments leading the way in response to COVID-19. Globally, city-level solutions are being trialled as people step up to help their communities using collective intelligence methods and smart cities technology. At Nesta, we published our first findings from research on how local councils are rapidly rethinking how they operate, in order to support vulnerable residents and work in new ways with communities, businesses and partners.

Metro mayors, the directly elected leaders of combined authorities, are the product of a sustained devolutionary push from successive governments aimed at empowering cities across the country. Across England, over 20 million people from London to Liverpool are represented by metro mayors. Their remit is still in development and differs from city to city based on their devolution deals.

Here, we outline several ways that mayors should cultivate their role in the recovery, using their profile and devolved powers to help ensure the approach to renewal doesn’t leave some places behind. Over the coming months Nesta will be looking in more detail at how innovation can benefit more places across the UK, including an analysis of where research and development activity happens across the country and how innovation policy can be more inclusive.

How metro mayors can play a leading role in making this a reality

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With the benefit of distance from the leadership in Westminster, metro mayors have the benefit of being a prominent figure on the national stage, while having greater autonomy to pursue bold new ideas. Unlike politicians in Westminster - whose duty to their constituents must be balanced with their party’s desire for national success - as directly elected representatives, a metro mayor’s only political focus is their particular city-region.

Metro mayors should take advantage of this unique mandate to test new policy solutions to challenges, such as delivering better public services under challenging conditions and supporting local businesses. They can set up innovation testbeds to trial new ways of doing things, combining expertise in their cities’ research institutions and businesses to test new interventions in the ‘real world’.

The UK’s Combined Authorities should become the home of geographically defined, future-facing trials to explore the opportunities and concerns surrounding emerging technologies. We can learn from the examples of cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam and Ghent, which have established data collectives to store citizens’ data and interpret it for the public good, including improving traffic flows and healthcare while protecting people’s privacy. Innovative pandemic responses could present a shift in how technology is used in smart cities, as a method that is grounded in community building.

Pursuing innovative new technologies is not only politically possible for mayors - it should be a political imperative, placing their city at the cutting edge of public policy.

The impact of COVID-19 has not been felt equally across the UK: levels of infection have been highest in urban centres and among certain ethnic minority communities, while older people are likely to suffer graver consequences as a result of contracting the virus. Meanwhile, social distancing measures have hit those already in low-wage, insecure work, the people who are least able to work from what is often insecure housing. A slow economic recovery will highlight the already stark structural inequalities within and between parts of the UK.

Britain is one of the most regionally unequal developed countries in the world in terms of productivity, incomes, job opportunities and health outcomes. For example, there is strong evidence that investment in R&D has a positive impact on long-term economic outcomes - but this is often limited to particular regions, particularly London and the South East, and certain industries, such as biomedical science - without benefits spreading into the everyday economy. With an ear to the ground, metro mayors can advocate for investment beyond glamorous large-scale projects like the “MIT of the North” that were heralded before the pandemic. Rather, they can highlight the need for immediate innovation to rebuild sectors of the foundational economy - as demonstrated in Nesta’s recent paper Love’s Labour Found. The existing challenge has become only more pressing as industries, such as care work, retail and hospitality - are among those hardest hit by the pressures of the virus and subsequent lockdown measures.

The recovery process will take a nuanced, granular understanding of local economies and the impact of COVID-19. Nesta is looking at how data techniques such as innovation mapping could help cities and regions understand how their economies are changing and how best to support them.

The UK overall is running a democratic deficit with recent Nesta research showing 62% of the population feeling they have little or no opportunity to influence the long-term future of the country. The public has so far been more compliant than expected in adhering to restrictive lockdown measures and while the popularity of incumbents has received a boost during the crisis, any boost in trust is largely dependent on the government delivering on its economic recovery package. Moving forward, that trust might slip further if the population feels politicians have not dealt with the crisis and managed recovery effectively - given they have been asked to sacrifice so much.

The lockdown holds promise for modernising our democratic institutions too, though, in order to meet this challenge. The UK has made no changes in how it conducts politics for at least a century, with MPs some of the last of the non-key workers to move their offices to home - due to a lack of digital tools to enable parliamentarians to vote and debate remotely. Constraints on physical gatherings have put an impetus on government at all levels to experiment with digital ways of working and engaging.

Metro mayors do not suffer the same historic institutional constraints, with most of them leading brand new chambers. As well as making full use of digital tools to run their authorities, mayors must fully exploit their potential to listen, including making use of Participatory Futures methods to build consensus and understand what the public want their community to look like in a post-COVID world: what they want to go back to normal and where they want significant change. The new economy is likely to look very different to the one we left behind earlier this spring. Mayors can ensure people are able to have a say on what that means for their local community, engaging those who might not usually take part in more traditional public consultations. Such methods often borrow from a range of fields including gaming, theatre and design to make people more likely to want to take part and use digital technologies to involve people at scale.

In order to do much of this work, metro mayors need the resources to put bold ideas into action. Under the status-quo, combined authorities don’t hold the pursestrings of a powerful devolved branch of government. Aspects of the budget that could take an innovative approach to kickstart local economies - for example, R&D spending - can be devolved from Westminster down to city regions. Now is the time to explore options for further devolution of power and resources.

For this to succeed, it will necessitate building capacity in local institutions and the expertise to spend the money wisely, ensuring regional public sector capabilities in economics, statistics and project management. It will also require an increase in the level of transparency about the decisions made. With the exception of Greater London, no metro-mayors have a directly elected body to hold them to account. Low levels of public engagement in local politics and a waning network of local media mean decisions often suffer lack of scrutiny. This challenge is compounded by the fact the bodies that do exist to hold mayors to account - the combined authorities - are comprised of council leaders. Considering the local authorities they lead have seen their budgets slashed in recent years, they are likely to bring their own local priorities to the table when deciding how increased budgets are spent.

For metro mayors to meet the challenge of leading a place-based approach to recovery from this pandemic, they will need to establish themselves as the bridge between the national and the local. They face twin challenges from those who provide their funding and those who provide their votes. Metro mayors must make the case to national government for greater resources and convince their voters that local politics is something worth caring about. This unique moment in time presents a rare opportunity to make this a reality. Taking advantage of the enthusiasm this crisis has kindled in people to improve their local communities and the willingness of a previously low-spend government to explore greater investment in times of crisis, now is the time for mayors to step forward. With bold new approaches, metro mayors may steer post-COVID recovery to ensure no city is left behind as we rebuild.


Jen Rae

Jen Rae

Jen Rae

Head of UK Innovation Policy

Jen Rae was a policy advisor on innovation and economic growth for Nesta’s Policy and Research team.

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Alex Porter

Alex Porter

Alex Porter

Mission Analyst, A Fairer Start

Alex was an analyst in Nesta’s fairer start mission team.

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