As the dust settles on the local elections, and the news sinks in that nearly all of England’s major cities rejected the offer of an elected mayor, the question has to be asked: what happens now to the government’s localism agenda?

One response of course would be to declare localism deceased, and for Whitehall to continue to hold the reigns of power. This would be a disaster for northern cities, with their different opportunities, challenges and priorities. England is an economically diverse country, and one size will not fit all. The government must now find another way of delivering greater localism, but how?

A good place to begin is by looking again at what it was we were trying to achieve with mayors. Greg Clark described them as a central part of the government’s economic growth agenda, with the government willing to devolve significant funding and powers to cities that have mayors, enabling them to identify and pursue local economic opportunities and priorities. Mayors also held out the possibility of a stronger voice and greater soft power for the north’s great cities, as leaders directly elected by the people are hard to ignore, as experience in London teaches us.

Given the goals of economic growth and more power and influence remain essential for the north, we need to identify alternative ways of delivering them in the wake of the mayoral no votes. 

Continuing to find ways to deliver powers and structures to city regions is a good place to start. This is the right approach for two reasons: first, city regional geography (Greater Manchester rather than Manchester City, Merseyside rather than Liverpool, Tyneside rather than Newcastle) better matches a city’s economic footprint. This makes it the right level at which decisions about future economic development should be made and coordinated with other policy areas like transport, skills and investment in major projects. Second, the scale of the city region makes it a better platform from which to project voice and influence into the national debate, in a way that can genuinely counterbalance the power of the Mayor of London. 

But continuing to build up powers at the city regional level can only be taken so far before questions about direct accountability back to the electorate have to be answered. City region-wide authorities and metro mayors (a mayor for the whole city region) are increasingly talked about in this context.

What is striking about the rejection of city mayors is that this is the second attempt to devolve powers within England that has been thwarted at the hands of the electorate. In 2004 the voters of the North East rejected the idea of an elected regional assembly, Labour’s proposal for decentralisation in England. Eight years later the biggest cities in the North have rejected the idea of elected city mayors – with the exception of Liverpool (where there people were not asked) and Salford (which elected its first mayor yesterday) – this was not the groundswell of support for localism that the government hoped for. 

There are two common lessons that can be drawn from these two attempts at devolution. First, ideas that appear from above without speaking to the needs and concerns of citizens are doomed to fail in a referendum. In both referendums it was not clear enough to voters how an elected assembly or an elected mayor would be able to improve the economy, schools or transport. Second - and related - in neither case was the powers, funding and influence on offer sufficiently clear. Vague promises of more powers to follow in future is hard to sell on the doorstep.

If nascent ideas for offering greater powers to city regions are going to get off the starting blocks, it is essential that these lessons are learned.

Katie Schmuecker is associate director of IPPR North. She tweets as @IPPR_Schmuecker

Tags: Elected Mayors