Metro mayors: the all-male club presiding over boards that are just 4% female

The six new metro mayors are all male. This might be less of a problem, writes Chris Game, if the Combined Authority boards they led were not overwhelmingly male too. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has tried to create a more balanced gender split, but attempts to do so elsewhere have met with resistance.

To some, Combined Authorities (CAs), are British government’s latest neoliberal political-economic reconfiguration of the local state. More specifically, they are the new forms of sub-central government in England, established voluntarily in recent years by groups of contiguous – and particularly metropolitan – local authorities in the hope central government will devolve to them responsibilities (and, of course, funding), principally for transport, economic development, skills and housing.

Their chief promoter, former Chancellor George Osborne, was almost obsessively keen that part of the price of such devolution would be councils’ acceptance that their CA headed by a directly elected mayor. Of the nine existing CAs, six agreed in time for elections to be held in early May, and, in a set of results few predicted, four of these first CA mayors are Conservative (Cambridgeshire/Peterborough, Tees Valley, West Midlands, West of England) and just two Labour (Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region).

All six mayors, though, are men. This underlined, even more emphatically than might have been expected, the women problem – or rather, lack-of-women problem – that all CAs have had pretty well from their inception, epitomised by a much-recycled picture of eleven very male and pale, if not stale, Greater Manchester council leaders signing an even paler George Osborne’s first devolution deal. In the West Midlands (WM), though – where I write from and which serves as a particularly forceful illustration – we have a mega-problem with two dimensions: why it exists, and what isn’t being done about it.

It exists first because the WMCA is both bigger and more complex than the other mayoral CAs, creating a unique lack of overlap between the Mayor’s cabinet and the CA Board. The latter, in addition to Mayor Andy Street, comprises seven constituent members – the metropolitan boroughs, whose leaders are the Mayor’s ‘Portfolio holders’ or cabinet – plus 13 non-constituent members: three Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and ten of the councils they cover.

All are represented, at least potentially with voting rights, on the CA Board. Constituent councils have two elected members each (rather than other CAs’ one), non-constituent bodies one each. Adding several accredited Observers and a TUC Co-optee (as a gestural balance to the 3 LEP members) makes 33 – three or more times the size of other mayoral CAs. Finally, and with potential representational significance, all members have a nominated Substitute Member to attend and act on their behalf, if required.

Of the WMCA’s 33 members, all but one are men, the single exception being Councillor Izzi Seccombe, Leader of Warwickshire County Council, a non-constituent member. The other CAs are smaller, but their gender split disproportionality similar. None have more than one female board member, the overall split being 71-3 or 4% women – a situation that was both predictable and predicted.

In March, the Fawcett Society published an ‘Evidence Document’ on Women in Greater Manchester in conjunction with the local women’s campaign group, DivaManc. It concluded by asking all candidates to respond to five fairly demanding “Mayoral Pledges and Calls to Action”, headed by “Gender-balanced leadership and representation across Greater Manchester”.

All candidates duly signed, including the odds-on favourite and eventual winner, Labour’s Andy Burnham. The Fawcett document then outlined the hurdles involved in the “gender-balanced representation” pledge, and the likelihood that, whatever the election result, “only one of 11 GMCA members will be a woman”. For the ten constituent councils had already chosen their leader/elected mayor as their single permitted GMCA member, and only one at the time was a woman – Jean Stretton, Labour leader of Oldham Council, whose own cabinet, probably not by chance, is gender-balanced.

Signing the Fawcett pledge, therefore, would commit the new Mayor to:

  • Call for the Government to amend this policy, requiring each constituent council’s CA representation to comprise a man and a woman.
  • If that failed, request that 50% of the councils nominate a senior woman councillor to attend in place of the leader/mayor; or ensure that all substitute members are women, that they attend on an equal rota, and have substantial roles and responsibilities.
  • If a man, appointing a woman as Deputy Mayor.

The day following his election, new Mayor Andy Burnham demonstrated his commitment to the pledge by appointing two deputies, one being Baroness Beverley Hughes – former Leader of Trafford Council, Labour MP and Minister – as Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, making 11 cabinet portfolio holders, including two women. Hughes is the only salaried deputy, her appointment enabled by the previous portfolio holder (as GM Police & Crime Commissioner) being interim mayor Tony Lloyd.

Within weeks Mayor Burnham had gone further, demonstrating that constitutions are there to be reconstituted. An amended GMCA constitution now requires appointed portfolio holders to nominate assistant leads of a different gender to ensure balanced representation in meetings and decision-making. Committees, panels and boards that advise the Mayor will also be gender-balanced wherever possible.

Down the M62, though, Liverpool City Region CA Mayor, Steve Rotheram, was finding life tougher. His seven-member, all-male cabinet, plus three male co-optees, prompted considerable local protest.  He had “attempted to bring two women into his cabinet, but was blocked by other members”.  One – Merseyside Police & Crime Commissioner Jane Kennedy – has since become a non-voting co-optee, and six of his seven specialist Mayoral Advisors are women. Liverpool City Council Mayor Joe Anderson has also nominated Councillor and former Merseyside Police Commissioner Ann O’Byrne to represent him on the LCR cabinet, making her the only woman with voting rights.

Liverpool Women’s Leadership Group, though, are unappeased. In a recent open letter referring to Greater Manchester’s example, they are “appalled that the LCR cabinet is made up entirely of men”, and call on all cabinet members with voting rights “to redress the enduring gender imbalance by nominating a woman from your cabinet to take your place”.

And so back to the West Midlands, where new Mayor Andy Street appears to acknowledge the WMCA’s socio-economic unrepresentativeness – an issue that was “referenced many times on the campaign trail [and] would need addressing in the weeks and months ahead”. It wasn’t, however, mentioned in his 48-page, nearly 250-pledge manifesto, and the emphasis now was clearly on months, not weeks. Rather than follow the Fawcett/Burnham route, his single Deputy is fellow Conservative, Solihull Council leader, and former CA Chairman Bob Sleigh.

In the meantime, a woman has been appointed as WMCA Chief Executive alongside female senior officers. A WM Leadership Commission, chaired by Anita Bhalla, OBE, will “improve opportunities for communities and groups currently under-represented in the leadership of the West Midlands.” No specific reference to women, though, or their Board representation, let alone to amending the WMCA Constitution.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

Chris Game is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham.

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