Mayoral Combined Authorities – Issues and Opportunities For The 2020’s

Mayoral election

With 41% of England’s population under mayoral governance, London and Combined Authority Mayoral elections on May 6th were a significant local, regional and national milestone. The briefing reviews the results and discusses important issues for mayoral leadership and wider local government in the UK going forward.


The May 6 local elections included London, five core city region Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCA) and two non-metropolitan MCAs.

London and all MCAs together account for over 40% of England’s population and close to half its economic output. Their mayoral elections are therefore important both locally and nationally, and actually tell a story quite different to the media orthodoxy dominated by the Hartlepool by-election and council (LA) elections.

This briefing outlines the results and discusses the opportunities, issues and strategic choices facing mayoral sub-national leadership over the coming period. Whilst some of these choices are for mayors and MCAs themselves, the positions taken by national government and LAs will be crucial.

The briefing, therefore, has implications for devolution and for the UK as a whole insofar as there may be mayoral options in Scotland and Wales. It merits attention by and from individual LAs both within and outside Combined Authorities and by the local government sector collectively.

Modern executive Mayoral leadership of sub-national tiers of England has been a feature of the local political landscape since the establishment of the mayoral system for London in 2000, following a devolution referendum. The Local Government Act 2000 introduced legislation allowing this form of governance for local authorities (LAs). Fourteen LA mayoralities were established under this legislation, most during 2002-05. The Localism Act 2011 attempted to encourage this for England’s other large cities subject to a referendum. Although Liverpool and Leicester chose to adopt an executive mayor ahead of referendums, following 2012 referendums in ten of the largest cities, only Bristol voted for this form of city leadership. Nevertheless, LA mayors continue to lead LAs with a population approaching 4million, including two core cities. Of these, five held mayoral elections on May 6 th2021 (Bristol, Doncaster, Liverpool, North Tyneside and Salford – each returning Labour Mayors), whilst Newham and Tower Hamlets held follow-up referendums both of which voted to retain the system.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 enabled and encouraged the establishment of executive elected metro-Mayors convening and leading Combined Authorities (MCAs) as part of a devolution deal/agreement with Government. Under this regime, MCAs have been established and operated for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester (GM), Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley (TV), West of England (excluding North Somerset), and West Midlands – each in 2017; Sheffield City Region (2018), North of Tyne (2019) and West Yorkshire (2021).

Together with London, ‘metro-mayors’ have responsibilities for a population over 23million and economies of over £775bn.p.a. (41% and 49% of England’s totals).

Mayors have been introduced in a piecemeal way, have highly varied geographies, powers, functions and budgets. Nevertheless, they have been introduced in high profile and important city-region geographies (London and all the England Core cities except Nottingham), a leading European innovation cluster (Cambridgeshire & Peterborough) and a major political ‘red wall’ sub-region (Tees Valley). If anything, COVID-19 has increased Mayors’ leadership platforms for their city regions in a manner akin to the pandemic’s impact on Scottish and Welsh government leaders. This ranges from GM Burnham’s flirtations with ‘leadership of the north’ and his conflict with Government over Manchester’s Tier Three lockdown conditions, to TV Houchen’s championing of his sub-region’s credentials for freeport, Government decentralised offices (DIT and Treasury), and several other slices of patronage.

London, the five 2017 MCAs, and West Yorkshire held mayoral elections on May 6th . The results and implications of these are highly significant in national, regional and local terms, and may be a major element in how devolution and sub-national leadership in England and potentially the UK evolves over the coming period.

May 6 2021 Election Results

The results of the May 6th2021 MCA elections with comments are shown below: 

1. London – Mayor Sadiq Khan (Labour) retained the mayorality with 55.2% of the vote from the Conservative candidate after a second-round count. Turnout of 42.2% was significantly the highest of the mayoral elections, but this was a reduction from 45.3% in 2016. The Greens with nearly 200,000 votes and 8% of the first-round vote were third – a long way ahead of the LibDems.

2. Greater Manchester (GM) – Mayor Andy Burnham (Labour) was re-elected GMCA Mayor with 67.3% of the vote in the first round. Conservatives (19.6%) were second, with the Greens (4.4%) third. Turnout of 34.7% was significantly up from the 28.9% turnout in 2017.

3. West Midlands (WM) – Mayor Andy Street (Conservative) was re-elected WMCA Mayor with 54% of the vote after the second round. Labour (46% after second round) were second, again with the Greens (5.8% in the first round) third. Turnout of 31.2% was significantly up from the 26.7% 2017 turnout. Unlike Burnham in GM who won every LA district with over 60% of the vote and a massive 77% in Manchester itself, Mayor Street lost first and second round counts in three of seven LAs – Birmingham, Coventry and Sandwell.

4. West Yorkshire (WY) – The inaugural election for the WYCA was won by Tracy Brabin (Labour) with 59.8% of the vote after the second round, ahead of the Conservatives (40.2%). The Yorkshire Party and Greens were third and fourth respectively with 9.7% and 9.2% of first round votes. Turnout at 36.5% was greater than either GM or WM elections. Mayor Brabin becomes the first female metro-mayor.

5. Liverpool City Region (LCR) – Mayor Steven Rotheram was re-elected as LCRMCA Mayor with 58.3% in the first round. The Conservatives (19.6%) were second and the Greens (11.8%) third. Turnout of 29.7% is low but is up from 26.1% in 2017.

6. West of England (WoE) – Mayor Dan Norris (Labour) captured WoEMCA from the Conservatives with a comfortable 59.5% second round vote over the Conservatives 40.5%. The margin of victory was increased by the large second round vote transfers from Green 21.7% and Liberal Democrats 16.3% in the first round which split 3.2:1 for Labour. The Greens finished second in Bristol itself (28.1%) where they ran off against Labour for the Bristol Mayor. Turnout of 36.6% was significantly up from the 29.7% in 2017.

7. Cambridgeshire & Peterborough (C&P) – Mayor Nik Johnson (Labour) captured C&PMCA from the Conservatives with a 51.3% vote on a turnout of 37% (up from 32.9% in 2017). What is interesting is that the vote was heavily divided with Cambridge and surrounding South Cambridgeshire voting strongly Labour on turnouts of 41% and 45%, rural Cambridgeshire voting heavily for the Conservative incumbent on turnouts of 30-36% and Peterborough fairly evenly divided on a turnout of 34%.

8. Tees Valley (TV) – Mayor Ben Houchen (Conservative) retained the TVMCA with a massive 72.8% of the vote in the first round on a 34% turnout – up from a miserly 21.3% in 2017. However, turnout was skewed by the Hartlepool byelection of the same day. Without this turnout might have been around 31%.

North of Tyne and Sheffield City Region MCAs did not hold elections. Sheffield City Region MCA elections are due in 2022 and North of Tyne in 2024 – although this latter will not take place if a North East MCA is agreed.

MCA leadership and governance

London and the nine metro-mayors have very different types of geography, powers, finances and even terms of office. Whilst the intention may have been broadly to position mayors as city-region-scale leaders, there is an inconsistency in city-region MCA geographies.

Many MCAs are constrained by neighbouring county boundaries, political disagreements like South of Tyne in the North East or North Somerset in West of England, and some, like Cambridgeshire and Peterborough or Tees Valley have polycentric urban centres with relatively inconsistent approaches to hinterlands in or outside the MCA. Populations and economies range from the 9m of London as Europe’s premier world city with GVA per capita around 175% of the UK average to under 700,000 in Tees Valley in one of the poorer performing sub-regions of the UK with a GVA per capita around 70% of the UK average.

London and some of the metro-mayors operate major transport systems with large budgets whilst other have more traditional non-metropolitan transport systems or evolving sub-national Transport Boards (STBs) that are larger than their boundaries. Devolution deals range from over £1bn in West Midlands and West Yorkshire to £450m in Tees Valley. London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire have Police and Crime Commissioner powers, but these remain distinctive in other MCAs.

Whilst terms of office are typically four years, most of the 2017 Mayors were elected on three-year terms which, when 2020 elections were postponed, means that these 2021 Mayors will only serve until 2024. Voting system has been single transferable vote. Government has announced an intention of changing to first past the post, although this has been criticised as explicitly political given the small proportion of second round transfers to Conservative candidates from voters for other parties.

This inconsistency of MCA formulation extends to the character of the mayoralities and the Mayor’s focus. However, there are several common themes.

All of them have clear purposes and priorities to make their devolution agreements with Government work. Outside London, this has involved a particular focus on vocational and adult skills, transport investment (and services where there is a city region operational Transport Authority), some housing and planning powers, and the potential to establish Mayoral Development Corporations. Greater Manchester has tried to go further with health and care integration than other MCAs. All Mayors have played a prominent role in negotiating with Government during and over COVID-19 pandemic response with both formal powers where they have blue light services powers, but also with considerable soft influencing and PR roles.

This last point is perhaps the major challenge and opportunity facing mayors – the potential to influence and deploy soft power to set the tone and character of places and communities for which they are accountable, and to differentiate them from national norms and trends. In this respect, there may be tensions and potential trade offs in the manner in which individual Mayors approach their roles and what they chose to prioritise.

Placemaking priorities post-elections

Each of the mayors have been elected on manifestos and may be expected to seek to put these into practice over their mayoral terms, potentially setting the longer-term direction for their city regions and communities. This section outlines some of the key priorities and issues related to these challenges.

Mayor Khan in London is facing issues of literally global significance and complexity as he seeks to progress his “greener, fairer and safer” priorities. These are not made easier by the clear animosities between him and his predecessor – now PM; and by Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ priorities. These are often simplistically focused on regions outside London and the South East and on ‘red wall’ towns in those regions.

Arguably, London’s position as Europe’s premier world city is uniquely undermined by the pandemic, Brexit, the moves away from globalisation and agglomeration, and the uncertain impacts of post-COVID trends on home working (and office markets), high streets, and the visitor economy. Rebooting and repositioning a world city post pandemic sits alongside longstanding strategic and operational tensions over housebuilding and the London Plan, the TfL bailout, crime and disorder fears, green and smart city challenges.

The importance of getting this right is critical for the London Mayor but also for Government, as London’s fiscal surpluses (£4350p.a. per person pre-pandemic) is the major source of Government funding in the other nations and regions, and for servicing pandemic borrowing.

After London, Greater Manchester tends to lead the way in devolution and whole system approaches to sub-national governance in England. Mayor Burnham is likely to continue to play a national role in devolution debates, with a particular interest in leading the ‘North’ as well as focusing on the city-region.

Progress in the second term will require effective post-COVID recovery planning and repositioning of the Manchester and district centres. A strategic spatial plan that removes housebuilding blockages and rebalances vitality, especially of lagging districts in the city region is critical. At the same time, GM will wish to remain at the forefront of enhanced devolution of health and care reforms, progress local bus franchising and other transport developments, and address enduring skills and productivity deficits that have constrained inclusive and sustainable growth.

The retention of West Midlands mayorality by Andy Street is much more nuanced than the national conservative-supporting press suggests. Mayor Street has huge HS2 opportunities and a growth point of national significance around ‘UK Central’ in Solihull. He will also have major roles in transport investment and services (including bus franchising and a Birmingham congestion charge), and flagships like the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

However, committing to no mayoral precept makes the MCA’s dependency on Government largesse and the Mayor’s positioning as the Tory’s major metropolitan incumbent very acute, and probably does devolution more widely no favours. The highly-differentiated challenges facing his two largest cities post-pandemic – Birmingham and Coventry – neither of which he won electorally, will be demanding. And ultimately, the MCA’s geography vis-à-vis neighbouring counties and overlapping LEPs adds complexity that will require skilful attention and may become an unhelpful distraction.

Mayor Brabin’s victory to become West Yorkshire’s first MCA Mayor and also the first female metro-mayor is important. Making devolution deal progress, assuming the Police and Crime Commissioner roles, getting up to speed with other MCAs, and supporting COVID-19 recovery will clearly be central. Leeds City Region certainly has huge opportunities including the C4 move and hosting the HQ of the UK Infrastructure Bank. At the same time, unresolved Yorkshire, York and neighbour issues – including possible North Yorkshire local government reorganisation; together with the impending Batley by-election of which Brabin is the MP, could unhelpfully distort the early tone and character of the MCA.

The comfortable retention of the Liverpool City Region MCA, despite the well  publicised difficulties at Liverpool City Council may provide welcome continuity for the city-region. Mayor Rotheram has prioritised a ‘Young Persons’ Guarantee’ to address the city region’s young person’s unemployment and skills deficits. He is also keen on assuming bus franchising powers and open to considering congestion charging in Liverpool. After a sometimes-subdued start in 2017, Mayor Rotheram’s profile rose during the pandemic, and post-pandemic green recovery is set to be a major theme of his second term and LCRs future development strategies.

The capture of West of England MCA by Labour’s Dan Norris from the Tories with approaching 60% of the vote after the second round is highly significant. With turnout approaching 37% (up 7% from 2017), strong Green (21.7%) and Liberal Democrat (16.3%) showings in third and fourth places in the first round, this is a major switch in England’s best performing core city region in terms of economic growth. With strong green and inclusive growth themes, Mayor Norris is also acutely aware of Bristol’s position at the heart of a trans-border Western Gateway region. At the same time, there will be tensions associated with the Conservative candidate winning the first round votes in Bath & North East Somerset and in South Gloucestershire whilst Mayor Norris won convincingly in Bristol itself. Indeed, had North Somerset not declined to join the MCA, or were unitarisation of Somerset to bring in new member(s) to the south-west, the electoral arithmetic might look very different.

Similarly, the capture of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough MCA by Labour’s Nik Johnson is another striking victory. Again with 37% turnout (up 4.1% from 2017) and based on Mayor Johnson’s high support and overwhelming second round transfers in Cambridge and surrounding South Cambridgeshire (the incumbent led by 8% and 18,000 votes after the first round), this represents the transfer of a relatively young, high skills, rapidly growing and dynamic sub-region to Labour of some global profile and significance. Under a three-Cs banner of Compassion, Cooperation and Community, the new Mayor has already cancelled two flagship projects of his predecessor that had been considered unaffordable and undeliverable. His focus is likely to be on housing affordability, connectivity, and bringing the disparate three areas – Cambridge, Peterborough and the Fens together in more synergistic and collaborative ways.

Finally, Ben Houchen was re-elected Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, with a significantly increased majority and turnout (influenced by the Hartlepool by-election the same day). Mayor Houchen has been stunningly successful in attracting support from government to this smallest of MCA sub-regions – with a freeport, renewables and regeneration financing, and at least two major Government relocations – DIT and Treasury. Celebrated and supported as a major beneficiary of Government’s red wall political agendas and ‘levelling up’ policy priorities, Mayor Houchen seems well-placed to sustain high levels of Government finance and political attention. What will be interesting, however, is how far this model of coworking politically with national government transforms Tees Valley economy and communities – and whether it is scalable for larger ‘levelling up’ sub-regions and regions.

Evolution of the mayoral model(s)

Whilst it is evident that the MCA model is still in its infancy, and also that there are major place and community-based differences across MCA geographies, the coming period offers opportunities and major policy choices on how the model may develop.

At London and GM ends of the continuum are whole system city-region approaches to new models of English enhanced devolution. At the other is the MCA as a vehicle for the administration of largely Government determined devo-deals and any other patronage that may be negotiated.

Similarly, there is a continuum between the outward-looking mayor using soft-power and influence to promote and shape how the MCAs geography and communities recovers from COVID, managing other big-ticket opportunities or future major shocks; as opposed to a more inward-facing Mayor, convenor of the local authority leaders, managing specific services like transport and adult skills. 

Finally, there is the model of MCA as a key part of levelling up agendas in lagging regions, or, perhaps, as West of England, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough suggest, as a dynamic entity driving sustainable, inclusive growth in more successful places.

Each MCA will find its own position in these continuums, but the model will also be decisively determined by Government.

The balance of the Johnson government’s commitment to genuine devolution or top down field administration; the extent to which it uses Mayors to openly renew democratic enthusiasm and choice, or the extent to which it changes voting systems and geographies for narrow political advantage; and its enthusiasm for further new MCAs in England, perhaps even in Scotland and Wales city regions; are all open questions as the UK emerges from lock down.

An argument can be made of Government interest in each of these strategies in Ministers’ recent behaviour and announcements. This is perhaps worrying – for some of these national political choices are the antithesis of devolution and local choice.

Finally, the local government sector itself needs to reassess its positioning vis-à-vis MCAs. Are they a tactical device for getting Government money or part of a coherent approach to bottom-up rebooting and renewing of cities and communities? As is discussed below, if MCAs are an integral part of the local government sector, the May 6th elections look very different to the picture presented by the Hartlepool byelection and the net Conservative capture of seats and Councils in more traditional local government elections.


The scale of MCAs in England, their breadth of types of geography, and potential differing strategic choices about the character of MCA mayoralities (and national and local government attitudes towards them) raises important fundamental questions about placemaking, local and regional development, and even of the Union (of the UK) going forward.

The May 6th mayoral elections present very different narratives about the politics and democracy in the individual places where the elections were held, but also a very different national narrative about England, and therefore Johnson government’s UK challenges, going forward.

It is fair to say that the conservative-leaning media presented a narrative post-May 6 of ‘Labour in crisis’ and of encouraging Conservative progress based on victory in Hartlepool, retention of WM and TV MCAs, and an increase in Conservative LA seats and councils. Indeed, nothing exemplifies this more than the commentary on the Labour victory in the first WYMCA being presented primarily in some media as an opportunity for the Conservatives to increase their parliamentary majority from 82 to 83 seats in the impending Batley by-election!

However, a credible (perhaps the more likely) MCA narrative post-May 6th is quite different and much more nuanced. The loss of WoE, C&P MCAs, failure to make progress in the metro-areas, combined with second round preferences signifies just how polarising and bounded Conservatives under Johnson have become. Their appeal in London, core cities, and younger, more dynamic places is vulnerable to red and green political sentiment, but much more resilient in older, more lagging places, where they benefit from the collapse of a UKIP/Brexit Party alternative.

The implications of this counter-narrative are as much about a growing crisis for the Conservatives as they are for Labour. If Government’s political response is to continue big government centralisation that has characterised England’s COVID-19 response, increase pursuit of levelling up deals that marginalise the MCAs and core cities (as in Town Deals), and to manipulate the voting systems and perhaps future MCA geographies, then the implications for enhanced devolution will be profound.

Another issue that the MCA elections illustrate and suggest is that, as part of a process of democratic renewal, whilst there are some positive trends from the MCA experience, they are not a ‘golden bullet’ for democratic renewal.

London’s mayoral turnout after twenty years of elections remains stubbornly stuck in the low 40s percentile – having been lower in 2021 than in 2016. All the 2017 MCAs showed significant increases in turnout in their second elections – but remained in the 30-37% range. Typically, 2/3 of resident adults chose not to vote.

There is an argument to be made about mayoral governance offering a potential solution to the intermediate tier conundrum that has bedevilled England for generations. It is not the only argument, but London and the early insights from the MCAs (especially during the pandemic) provide some positive hypotheses.

Metro and sub-regional mayors provide high profile advocacy for their geography. They might be a persuasive, potentially transformational, influencer and enabler of change. MCAs are of a scale where they can be a credible recipient of enhanced devolution powers and resources from central government (and potentially from devolved governments in Scotland and Wales). With status, powers and resources, they might also stimulate renewed democratic enthusiasm and local accountability.

This could be a key and exciting component of the impending, renamed ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper. What the May 6th elections and its aftermath raise, however, is how ready and enthusiastic both Central Government and the LA sector are to embrace this hypothesis.

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