Post-Covid challenges for Liverpool City Region’s metro mayor
As Liverpool City Region elects a mayor for only the second time, Heseltine Institute research associate, Tom Arnold, considers the policy priorities that will confront the metro mayor during a period of post-Covid recovery.
The Recovery Election
Residents in Liverpool City Region (LCR) go to the polls on 6th May to elect a mayor for only the second time. The circumstances could barely be more different than those in which Steve Rotheram comfortably won the metro mayoralty in 2017: the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 have been particularly harsh in the city-region, and the aftershocks of the pandemic are likely to resonate for years to come. According to data from the LCR Combined Authority's COVID-19 recovery monitor, unemployment in LCR was higher than the average in the North West and England as a whole before the pandemic, and has risen to 7.7% of the working age population, up from 4% in early 2020. A large portion of jobs in the city-region are in sectors disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, lockdown and social distancing, such as accommodation, arts and culture, and tourism. While retail and hospitality open up, the economic scars of the last 14 months may not be fully visible for some time.
Whoever is elected on Thursday also faces a separate, political challenge – not many people in Liverpool City Region will know who they are, and even fewer will understand what they do. Polling for the Centre for Cities found only 22% of residents can correctly name the current LCR mayor, compared with 63% in Greater Manchester, 60% in London and 40% in Tees Valley. Respondents were also asked for the top three priorities their elected mayors should adopt during the post-Covid recovery period. In LCR, these were health care, social care and under-16 education – all areas where the metro mayor has no direct power, funding or responsibilities.
Power and platform
The formal powers of the LCR mayor are more limited than their counterparts in Greater Manchester and London, but nevertheless encompass influence over transport, spatial planning and post-16 education and skills policy. More important, perhaps, is the extent to which the metro mayor is able to use the soft power of the office to co-ordinate and direct resources towards their chosen priorities. The Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (LCRCA), the six local authorities in the region, the Local Enterprise Partnership, the LCR’s six NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, and its hundreds of charities, voluntary and community organisations will all play a role in the post-Covid recovery. The mayor’s profile provides a unique platform, if used effectively, to corral institutional expertise towards their chosen priorities.
Here, then, are three policy areas where particular attention will be required over the next mayoral term as Liverpool City Region attempts to rebuild after the pandemic, and where the mayor’s power and platform can be used effectively to develop a sustainable post-Covid recovery.
Post-school education and training
Employees under 25 in the UK are more likely to work in sectors affected by lockdowns than the general population. A report for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Youth Employment found that of the four million workers under 25, almost half were furloughed at some point in the last year, and unemployment in this age group has doubled since the start of the pandemic. LCRCA has been responsible for the adult education budget since 2019, giving the mayor and combined authority extensive control over provision of training and education for over-19s. Strengthening links with colleges and other further education providers will be essential to ensure local economic strategy is allied with the skills budget.
Ensuring that skills and education policy is aligned with the needs of the post-pandemic economy will be crucial: while the prospects in sectors such as hospitality, retail and entertainment appear uncertain at this point, LCR has significant strengths in areas such as renewable energy that will be crucial to recovery. The proposed LCR Freeport, development of which will be overseen by the combined authority, offers an opportunity to ensure any new jobs created benefit local residents, particularly under-25s who have been disproportionately impacted by the economic hit of COVID-19.
The pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for the funding of public transport across the UK, not least in LCR where the publicly-owned Merseyrail has suffered extensive losses due to the inevitable drop in ticket sales prompted by successive stay-at-home orders. The rapid shift in 2020 to home working for many employees did, however, encourage a renewed interest in alternative forms of transport, particularly of the active type. Cycling and walking infrastructure was expanded across the city-region with great haste following the introduction of the government’s Active Travel Fund, with pop-up bike lanes appearing on routes previously cursed by traffic and pollution. Sadly, many of these cycle lanes have now been removed, and traffic levels have begun to approach pre-pandemic levels, raising fears of a ‘car-led’ return to the workplace for many.
As research from the University of Liverpool’s planning department has demonstrated, residents in the most deprived areas are less likely than those in more affluent areas to own a car, but most affected by increases in air pollution, noise and congestion associated with a transport network reliant on private vehicles. Given the interconnected nature of LCR’s transport network, tackling car dependency and encouraging more sustainable forms of public transport can only be achieved at the city-region scale, and cannot be left to local authorities alone. Political tensions are inevitable, and removing road space from drivers is rarely popular, but if Liverpool City Region’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040 is to be met, the Mayor will need to take a lead on this issue.
Consultation on the LCR Spatial Development Strategy (SDS) was completed earlier this year, and ensuring its adoption will be a key priority for the combined authority over the next 18 months. The mayor’s role will be to ensure political support for the plan is maintained across the six local authority areas, and avoid a repeat of the planning troubles experienced by Andy Burnham at the other end of the River Mersey. Unlike Greater Manchester’s Spatial Framework, the SDS does not allocate residential and employment sites, instead leaving this job to councils in their local plans. This should allow for an easier adoption process, although the devil will be in the housing need figures on which consultation is likely later this year.
The construction sector will be crucial to post-Covid recovery, and businesses in a wide range of sectors will benefit from clarity on where and when development is required. Like transport, new housing will be crucial to meeting LCR’s climate change targets, and improving the sustainability of existing housing stock, through low-carbon retrofitting for example, will require close collaboration with housing associations and landlords across the city-region. Mayoral leadership on training and education will also be important in ensuring that the supply of skilled construction employees keeps up with demand – particularly as the labour impacts of Brexit take effect.
This year marks something of a fork in the road for sub-national devolution in England. While mayors in Liverpool City Region and other combined authority areas seek re-election and the concept of elected metro mayors becomes more institutionally engrained, enthusiasm for decentralising power appears to have cooled in Westminster. The Devolution White Paper, expected later this year, will offer clues as to whether mayors are likely to gain more formal powers, or be expected to do more with the relatively limited resources available to them under current arrangements. Either way, the second mayoral term in LCR represents an opportunity to increase the visibility of the role, build on the city-region’s social, environmental and economic assets, and demonstrate the important part that can be played by sub-national institutions in delivering genuine benefits for local people and businesses. There are certain elements of LCR’s Building Back Better agenda that can only be driven at the city-regional level, and the mayor will need to play a key role in setting the tone for recovery.