New reports explore mayoral accountability and regional economic resilience

New reports exploring mayoral accountability and regional economic resilience show the UK government’s Levelling Up White Paper is only a start to reducing the stubborn regional inequalities that still plague communities in England today.

An image of a speaker presenting to a room full of people.
  • Reports from University of Sheffield researchers highlight pressing challenges for policymakers looking to reduce regional inequalities within England
  • Authors of first report say a new model of accountability for Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) is needed to enhance local democracy and demonstrate effectiveness of the devolved system 
  • Second report explores how economic shocks, such as the 2008 global recession or the Covid-19 pandemic, fuel regional inequalities and national recovery data obscures struggling areas
  • Policy makers are identified as ideally placed to support vulnerable areas with poorer economic resilience in the face of future ‘shocks’

New reports exploring mayoral accountability and regional economic resilience by University of Sheffield experts show the UK government’s Levelling Up White Paper is only a start to reducing the stubborn regional inequalities that still plague communities in England today.

As part of the UK2070 Commission, an inquiry into regional inequalities chaired by Lord Kerslake, reports by University of Sheffield researchers have highlighted pressing challenges for policymakers looking to address these challenges within England. 

The reports by Sheffield researchers, funded through the Crook Public Service Fellowships which give future leaders an opportunity to tackle pressing policy matters, were published as the government launched its flagship Levelling Up White Paper. The paper sets out the government’s 12 missions to address regional disparities - including a commitment that every part of England that wants one can have a devolution deal by 2030.

Mayoral accountability is the subject of the first report, ‘Accountable for what and to who? Making mayoral accountability fit for English devolution, by Dr Matthew Wood, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics and International Relations, and Zoë Billingham, a Sheffield Crook Public Service Fellow.

There are currently nine Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) in England, each with a metro mayor and a bespoke devolution deal with central government, covering governance, devolved powers and allocation of funding.

Following the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper, which broadened the mayoral model to new areas of the country, the accountability of these local institutions and their political leaders grew in importance. As yet there is no plan yet to improve the system of accountability of mayors.

Sheffield Crook Service Fellow Zoë Billingham, said: “The White Paper recognises that devolving power out of Whitehall is central to a successful levelling up agenda. However, as our report sets out, a growing number of directly elected mayors increases the importance of accountable local leadership and their institutions.The report argues a new model of accountability is needed for the expanding mayoral system to both serve democracy and effectively reduce regional inequality in England.”

The report also puts forward a series of provocations or questions that the experts will use to frame further research about what a new model for MCAs that can promote and uphold democracy will look like. This will include whether further regional oversight on devolution outcomes and how decision-making in local spending can be made more visible and inclusive for the public.

Dr Matthew Wood said: “The introduction of clear legislative missions and annual reports for devolved authorities in the White Paper will assist in accounting for how society gets value for money from the funding made available. 

“MCAs need to be at heart, empowered community policy making institutions and not agencies for top-down implementation.”

Wood and Billingham aim to continue their research to make a set of recommendations on accountability of MCAs by mid-2022 that should help policy makers achieve the missions set out in the White Paper.

In a separate report, Dr Aidan While from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, along with Daniel Timms of Metro Dynamics, authored ‘Measuring, monitoring, and improving the resilience of places to economic shocks across the UK’ which looks at the importance of regional resilience in the face of major economic shocks such as the 2008 global recession or the Covid-19 pandemic.

Such major events can fuel unemployment and cripple local and national productivity, so the authors have explored how policy makers can plan for future ‘shocks’, boost regional responses and resilience, and reduce the spatial inequalities in how some economic areas recover well while others struggle for years afterwards.

Dr Aidan While said: “Our report recommends local authorities ‘stress test’ for vulnerabilities in their local economies, publish local-level real-time economic data during a crisis and that areas with poorer resilience should continue to be supported by policymakers (through furlough schemes for example), even if national data suggests an overall recovery. These three areas will help cushion vulnerable communities against widening regional inequalities.”

Employment and productivity levels have far reaching consequences beyond the initial crisis, affecting household incomes, welfare and health and wellbeing outcomes in the longer term, as some areas can struggle to attract new employers or re-train communities of skilled workers.

Daniel Timms, from Metro-Dynamics worked with Aidan on the new report, he said: “The 2008 crisis reinforced spatial inequality. Even though by its nature it was a financial crisis, the heart of our nation’s financial economy – Central London – recovered much more strongly than places like East Yorkshire, which still haven’t caught up. After Covid, further economic shocks are almost certain and Government needs to work actively with local authorities to build a resilience culture, or Levelling Up will be unachievable. At Metro Dynamics we focus on working with places to create sustainable growth, and this research will help us design resilience-based strategies with places.”

Dr While added: “Many of the missions in the government’s White Paper put forth the ambition to reduce regional inequalities across a wide breadth of economic and social markers. This includes pay, employment and productivity rising nationally, and the gap between the top performing and other areas closing by 2030.

“An ambitious target that requires building resilience planning into policy making and, we believe empowering local places to scenario plan, collect and use data to track and assess economic vulnerabilities will ensure future shocks do not fuel the persistent inequalities across the UK.”

Professor Tony Crook, Emeritus Professor at the University of Sheffield and Founder of the Crooks Fellowship scheme, said: “I am delighted to see these two reports from our Crook Fellows. The collaboration between two outstanding policy practitioners and two of our leading academic policy research colleagues is just what we wanted to achieve with the Crook fellowships. Not only do these reports raise critical policy issues but they are very timely given the imminent announcement of the government's levelling up agenda.

“The reports are also feeding into the work of the UK2070 Commission on regional inequalities chaired by Lord Kerslake and I would like to acknowledge the collaboration we have had with his team.”

Professor John Flint, Faculty of Social Sciences Director of Research and Innovation, said: "I wish to congratulate everyone involved in researching and producing these reports and their very significant recommendations for ensuring accountability in English devolution and enhancing our resilience to economic shocks across the UK.

“These projects exemplify the value of the Crook Fellowships in facilitating our academics and their partners in policy and practice to share and learn from each other's expertise and work jointly to develop innovative new social science-led thinking on the major challenges of our time. I would like to thank Professor Crook for his generous support which enables this Fellowship programme to continue to thrive."

Additional information

  • The reports were produced as the result of the most recent cohort of the Crook Public Service Fellowships, founded by, and named for, Emeritus Professor Anthony Crook CBE. The fellowships provide opportunities for future leaders in public and not-for-profit sectors to immerse themselves in a collaborative project on a pressing policy issue or challenge – taking short periods away from their day job.
  • Professor Crook served as Pro-Vice Chancellor for a decade until 2008 and was appointed CBE in 2014 for his services to housing. Professor Crook has been Chair of Shelter and Sheffield Homes and has also held senior roles with Orbit Housing Group and the Coalfields Regeneration Trust. He currently chairs The Conservation Volunteers and serves on the Architects Registration Board, the Royal Town Planning Institute  Board and on the Council of the National Academy of Social Sciences.

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