What will the mayoral elections mean for the transport industry?

On May 2nd, ten Combined Authorities (CA) head to the polls to vote for their mayors. As the key political stakeholder in regional transport, the mayoral elections will have significant consequences for transport policy and delivery. The mayoral elections will also offer insight into the mood of the major city regions ahead of the General Election (GE).

So what exactly will the largest devolved election day in UK history mean for the transport industry and the wider political environment?

New Combined Authorities

First, this election will mark the beginning of three new CAs - York and North Yorkshire, the East Midlands, and the North East, which will absorb the North Tyne CA. The creation of three new CAs will have implications for service delivery in the North and Midlands.

If we are to look at the existing CAs, reforming the local governance structure to introduce the mayor as the main regional advocate for transport has been a net positive. Recent polling from Centre for Cities showed respondents in every single area with an existing mayor were more likely to name them than the local council leader. Advocacy, visibility and accountability are three clear positives of the mayoral governance structure. Whether it's Burnham's franchised bus network, Street's rail improvements or Khan's ULEZ, devolving powers to regional leaders has produced many successes.

Electing a mayor will prove particularly beneficial for the East Midlands and North Yorkshire, areas that until now, have lacked representation at the devolved level above local authorities We expect to see increased advocacy for local projects such as:

The North East: Tyne and Wear metro expansion, Teesside freeport and other ports in the region, the new station in Ferryhill

The East Midlands: East - West rail, Midland mainline electrification and improved rail connectivity in the region

York and North Yorkshire: York City bus fleet electrification, improving local active travel routes to Selby train station, improving Harrogate's bus and rail stations

Currently, however, there is a concern surrounding awareness of the new CAs. Centre for Cities' polling showed in the East Midlands and North East, awareness of mayoral candidates and the election itself was very low. This shows more needs to be done to increase voter turnout and awareness of the new mayoral positions.

There are other risks involved with the elections. Metro mayors are another stakeholder to introduce into an already complex stakeholder landscape. Ensuring the mayor is properly embedded into the region's operational bodies is crucial. This is something we now have case studies to pull from and best practice to implement. It's also important that central government supply each CA with the funding and freedom to deliver excellent services regardless of the mayor's political allegiances. Devolution is often praised from a cross-party perspective but this doesn't always materialise into tangible benefits in practice.

Implications for transport policy

The introduction of three new CAs will provide new high-profile advocates for regional transport and a renewed sense of collective support for local projects. But the consequences of May 2nd for national transport policy and policy in the existing CAs are slightly less clear. Based on current polling, we expect to see Sadiq Khan secure a third term in the capital. At present, he sits roughly 25 points ahead of his Conservative opponent, Susan Hall. Khan opened his campaign promising to deliver 40,000 new council homes by 2030, so a question surrounds how these houses will slot into London's transport network. And more importantly how the introduction of new social housing can encourage sustainable travel via effective transport planning. Khan has previously considered simplifying the current ULEZ, LEZ and congestion charges, distilling them down to one charge. However, he did suggest this was not a high priority in his third term.

The elections and subsequent performance of the newly elected mayors will affect the pace of devolution in the UK. Devolution has broad cross-party support and has been enacted in one way or another by consecutive governments since 1997. By May 3rd, 44% of the UK population will live under an elected mayor. While it's hard to see a reversal of this trend, the mayors' performance and public sentiment towards them may affect the pace of devolution. Next year will see further devolution deals for Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire. In 2026 could we see Brighton and Sussex, Plymouth and Devonshire or Stoke and Staffordshire? Centre for Cities polling found the majority of people in all the mayoral areas believed transport powers should be held by the mayor, along with all other policy areas except healthcare. These results suggest the rapid pace of devolution will continue along with the benefits it brings for regional transport.

Moving the focus away from transport, most of the political commentary leading up to and following the May 2nd elections will centre on the implications for the two major parties heading into the GE. As is always the case in politics, the national picture will influence the local. But what's interesting about city regions is that Centre for Cities' polling suggests more people are likely to vote for a candidate than their party in a mayoral election compared to a GE. They found that 50% of respondents would vote for a candidate over the party in mayoral elections, compared to 36% in a GE.

The new CAs are in more marginal areas of the country compared to London, Liverpool or Manchester so a comprehensive victory for Labour candidates is not guaranteed. How the Conservatives perform in the 'Red Wall' will be a significant marker for success in the GE.