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Eleanor Young

The advent of six new metro mayors in England in the local elections has big implications for the built environment

Voters in six areas of England choose ‘metro mayors’ for the first time in the local elections on 4 May. Each mayor will head a combined structure bringing together the various local authorities in their area.

These are the first bodies with significant power on strategic planning, and budgets from central government, since the abolition of regional development agencies. 

The directly elected mayors and their combined authorities will wield their power in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, the West Midlands and the West of England. A seventh city region, Sheffield, is on track to elect a metro mayor in 2018. Some of the new autho­rities are flexing their muscles even before they have the new mandate. Greater Manchester has been leading the devolution charge since 2011. A nascent spatial plan could bring some order to the fragmented decision-making across its 2.8 million population. It also has central government’s agreement to £900m of investment over the next 30 years. 

Some voters, as in Bristol, will end up with three mayors: a lord mayor, a city mayor and a metro mayor. The latter may seem a superfluous layer, but as the cherry on the cake of a series of devolution deals between groups of local authorities and government, metro mayors could be a powerful force for joined up planning. Government wants the mayors to ensure direct accountability for combined authorities with greater powers. Others like the idea of the ‘focus’ and drive such mayors should bring to a combined authority. They will also have a wider electoral mandate. Current councillors, even council leaders, are only elected by one ward. They are not eligible to stand as metro mayors; instead the role has attracted candidates from national politicians such as Andy Burnham MP in Manchester to local business figures. 

Coverage across England is patchy. Many local authorities eventually decided the process was not for them – the geographic oddity of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, for example, started as part of a wider East Anglia devolution bid. Some authorities have only partially opted in as ‘non-constituents’. RDAs were also bigger beasts and left their traces in big visions such Will Alsop’s urban renaissance visions for Barnsley, in capital contributions to community buildings and business parks in their areas and the design advice. 

  • City regions and their constituent local authorities.
    City regions and their constituent local authorities.

Powers from above and below

So what defines metro mayors? They and their combined authorities are taking powers from central government above and their constituent local authorities below, and could negotiate more powers in the longer term  – such as those covering skills, health, infrastructure and planning. 

Edward Clarke is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, which works with cities as part think tank and part advisor. He describes the metro mayors as a cross between the London mayor and combined authorities (some of which will continue without mayors). So let’s look at those examples. London mayor Sadiq Khan still has vestiges of the authority of the London Development Agency, an RDA that was an arm of the Greater London Authority. Khan’s document A City for All Londoners is the first stage in his new London Plan, which could be hugely influential in setting the culture and strategic priorities of development in the capital like those of his predecessors Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. The GLA has been a voice for London at home and abroad and has won other powers from central government, starting with bringing transport under the umbrella of Transport for London, imposing a congestion charge zone, and, more recently, taking on the Homes and Communities’ Agency’s responsibilities including spend and land ownership.  

The other models of combined authorities are what they say on the tin and have been operating in some areas, such as Greater Manchester, since 2011. Here 10 local authorities, including Bolton, Stockport and Wigan, have worked together on transport, health and social care and housing and planning. Howard Bernstein, as chief executive of the combined authority, led the way to negotiating the most powers of all the city regions. It already has a staff of its own and plus secondments from the constituent local authorities to work on strategy. It is working through consultation comments on the Greater Manchester spatial framework including plans to build on some sites currently designated as green belt, as it looks for housing and land to build on up to 2035. The plan is expected to be published this year and adopted in 2018. It seems to have won a high level of engagement: there have been 50,000 downloads of the draft plan and nearly 30,000 comments received.

Spatial plans will be an essential instrument for the metro mayors, but achieving them can be slow. Peter Studdert, director of joint planning for Cambridge Growth Areas to 2011, points to the requirement for combined authorities to each have a strategic and economic production plan within a year but says the spatial plans that would flow from them are ‘at least a two year job’. And they would require strategic planning units, which have been pared to the bone by local authority budget cuts. Agreement on the spatial plans needs to be unanimous. With mayoral cabinets composed of leaders of the constituent councils that may be a difficult ask. Unless the metro mayor is elected on a manifesto pledge on controversial issues – such as building on the greenbelt – it may be hard to put them into action. 

This is certainly something that has raised concerns. The RIBA recently supported a report, Closer to Home, by IPPR North looking at how devolution might affect housing. While recognising that ‘England is not one housing market but many’, so mayors should be well placed to understand their area’s strategic needs, it recommended a special negotiation on housing. ‘Mayors lack powers to build more homes,’ it said and suggested that they needed to be able to decide on key policies such as whether to build on regional green belts. 


RIBA president Jane Duncan comments: ‘City devolution offers the opportunity for the first time to link housing, transport and infrastructure together to create sustainable, thriving healthy and happy communities. It is crucial that, as part of the developing devolution agenda, they are also equipped with the tools to drive up both housing supply and the quality of new homes.’ 

A quicker, more focused instrument is the mayoral development corporation. Simon Bedford, who leads Deloitte’s local government development team from Manchester, recommends this for areas that need to be looked at more speedily than a spatial plan would allow, such as north Liverpool or Bristol city centre. ‘I can see mayors picking up on this for more impact, more quickly,’ he says. With development corporations come compulsory purchase powers and possibly powers to determine planning applications. And here, of course, for architects, lie masterplanning opportunities as well as eventually buildings and public spaces to design.  

There are other ways that mayors and authorities may influence the built environment in their areas. Bedford points to the Manchester Residential Quality Guidance, worked on by Deloitte, RIBA past president Stephen Hodder and architect CallisonRTKL. Similar guides could come from other city regions. Working out how to influence permitted development rights around office changes of use to residential is already a battle in the city that the incoming metro mayor will no doubt want to take up. 

In most areas mayors will also be on the board of the local enterprise partnership with its existing plans and powers. Moves towards more coordinated land disposal plans across public bodies such as local authorities, the Ministry of Defence, hospital trusts, police authorities and the HCA could be localised, as they have been in the London Land Commission – and this would link them more closely to the need to deliver housing and development.  

Mayoral development corporations could offer quicker, more focused action than spatial plans

Infrastructure and growth

Bringing together infrastructure and growth will be an essential part of the metro mayor’s remit. For city regions, many of which naturally group themselves as commute to work areas, that could be difficult without mega investment in, say, trams. Bus franchising has to be high on the list though will require extra powers explains Clarke of Centre for Cities. ‘In Greater Manchester there are 40 different bus operators and many different ticket types,’ he says. Through ticketing and coordination between areas and routes could make a huge difference. 

Deloitte’s Bedford sees existing rail networks as a focus for both improved service and densification – the latter will require ‘imaginative housing solutions’ both in suburban locations and regional centres where retail is shrinking and housing could take the freed-up space. In each of the six city regions there are different needs, different deals and there will be different characters taking the reins as mayor for the next four years. 

Progress is likely to be a little slow at first – especially in complex, wide-ranging groupings such as the West Midlands – as mayors get to grips with their briefs, overlapping levels of responsibility and new teams. But in the next few years it will be interesting to see the directions they are taking their city regions. If their efforts are successful we may see more metro mayors in years to come.



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