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How metro mayors can lead the sustainable cities charge

Ashden’s Faye Scott urges the UK’s metro mayors to be bold to drive smarter, more sustainable cities.


The seven UK metro mayors, elected in May 2017 and 2018, are mandated to exercise powers and functions devolved from central Government. These primarily relate to planning for housing, skills and transport but each area has different priorities.


Alongside the London Mayor, this is a powerful new cadre of leaders, keen to secure change for the better in their city regions.

Their challenge is to work productively with their constituent local authorities, creating strategies that they own and can implement, while allowing local authorities to deliver on their existing responsibilities. Politically, this is a delicate path to tread.


When it comes to environmental progress, the metro mayors have no explicit remit on the issue. Their commitment to it therefore varies.

When it comes to environmental progress, the metro mayors have no explicit remit on the issue. Their commitment to it therefore varies. Some, like Greater Manchester, have a long history of collective working as a city region, combined with ambitious environmental goals, which the metro mayor Andy Burnham can build on. The scale of their ambition was recently set out in their ‘Springboard to a Green City Region’ report.


Others, like Liverpool City Region, have a strong work programme led by the Local Enterprise Partnership. This is now bolstered by metro mayor Steve Rotherham’s personal commitment to low carbon progress. In contrast, places like the West of England are finding their feet as a city region and are in the earlier stages of identifying policy priorities.


In other cases, as with Tees Valley city region, the more pressing need for economic renewal inevitably dominates to-do lists.


Weaving sustainability into city region agendas

City region priorities and low carbon progress should not be mutually exclusive. Focusing on low carbon goals can help with a wide range of issues, reflecting one of the unique opportunities that metro mayors have on the agenda. Tackling issues such as housing, transport, jobs, skills and health often gets siloed at the delivery level in local authorities. But metro mayors are, by the very nature of their remit, required to take a step back and to view their city region and its challenges as a whole.


City region priorities and low carbon progress should not be mutually exclusive.


They are best placed to see how housing need can be met and better aligned with transport improvements and access to jobs and skills, by taking a strategic view from the city region level.


They are, therefore, ideally placed to see how action on low carbon can be woven across their ambitions – from requiring more sustainable homes that will last for the longer term to integrating clean transport improvements with planned new housing. Just as significantly, they can also get the right people in the room to engineer productive partnerships and to catalyse progress.


Partnering for success


Many city regions already know the value of a partnership approach on sustainability. Sheffield City Region, for example, already works in partnership with local business to go further, faster on sustainability. City regions work with their local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) as a matter of course, and partnerships with universities aim to harness the academic excellence in city regions and apply it to the low carbon cause.


Although not a metro mayor city, the Leeds Climate Change Commission is a highly replicable model for city regions to adopt.


With their profile, mayors are well-placed to establish these kinds of partnerships, securing the expertise of key organisations and individuals to identify opportunities for progress at the city region scale and adding momentum to the effort.

Supporting success

Metro mayors and their teams should be advocates for a resilient, low carbon future for their city. The three northern metro mayors have already been working together to lobby for more investment in northern transport infrastructure. It provides a tantalising glimpse of what they could achieve when working in concert on other issues, such as sustainability.

Exchanging best practice and new ideas is key to this and doesn’t have to be done at the mayoral level. Those working on sustainability in the city regions are a mix of combined authority, LEP and local authority employees, and they are all keen to embed ambition on sustainability into the wider work of their city region.

Ashden is helping to enable that by convening sustainability leads in the city regions on a regular basis through our UK sustainable cities programme. It provides the opportunity to share learning and to delve into new issues on the horizon, such as the potential for local industrial strategies to support the low carbon transition.

Mayors are also encouraged to look within their city regions to uncover any best practice that already exists. For example, in the West Midlands, Big Birmingham Bikes is an initiative launched by Birmingham City Council. It provides over 4,000 free bikes to residents living in deprived areas to improve mobility and health. The success of the scheme, which links to over 50 community groups, is in increasing travel by bike rather than car, to reduce congestion and pollution. With sensitive advocacy, metro mayors could look to have successful approaches like this replicated across their wider city regions.

Be bold

Finally, mayors should be bold where more radical approaches are needed. For example, congestion is a persistent challenge in the city regions and most metro mayors have taken congestion charging off the table. Although solutions will be applied within individual local authorities, metro mayors can begin the conversation about what is needed, even where the options may not be immediately palatable.


Mayors should be bold where more radical approaches are needed.


Nottingham City Council’s Workplace Parking Levy places a charge on employers who provide 11 or more parking places. It faced opposition when introduced but its revenue has enabled dramatic investment in clean, efficient public transport, changed travel behaviours and helped to improve air quality. So much so that many cities are exploring its potential. Mayors are ideally placed to open up that conversation about what action a city needs to take to secure the future its citizens want.

The metro mayors are powerful political figures, elected because they demonstrated their ability to lead, to attract inward investment and garner support for the policies close to their hearts.

They have the clout to liaise with and influence national politicians and decision-makers.

They won’t all take the same route to achieving sustainability objectives, nor should they. But the tools at their disposal remain the same – the ability to work with each other, to support their teams in working together, to replicate existing success and to break down barriers where new approaches are needed.

In this way, they can demonstrate the benefits of devolution for building the future that cities want now, rather than waiting for it to trickle down from the centre.

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