Some political theorists have called for mayors to rule the world. Yet other commentators point to a record of mayors presiding over economic decline and bankruptcy and serving lengthy jail sentences for corruption.
We're unlikely to see either extreme in England any time soon. But more elected mayors are coming in May 2017, with candidates announced in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and the West Midlands.
Under the former leadership of David Cameron and George Osborne, elected mayors were expected as part of any agreed devolution deal. But following the change of government, the future direction of policy for elected mayors has been less clear.
The latest suggestions are that Theresa May will maintain the requirement for elected mayors as part of any future devolution deals, and for those deals that have been announced but not yet confirmed. And although some deals have stalled, devolution is likely to march on – Chancellor Phillip Hammond called for regional projects such as the Northern Powerhouse and the West Midlands Engine to be 'emulated across Britain' in his Conservative Party speech last month.
Elected mayors will have an important 'soft power' role, acting as a figurehead for the region, developing an international presence, marketing the area, and influencing government policy. They will also be responsible for strategic decisions over areas devolved as part of their individual devolution deal. These may include transport, skills funding and housing.
If we see further devolution of power and responsibility to local areas, the office of mayor could become one that wields considerable influence, including over university affairs. Some candidates, such as Andy Burnham MP, Labour candidate for Greater Manchester, may see the office of mayor as a viable alternative to senior national office given the current state of his party in the opinion polls. For others, such as Andy Street, Conservative candidate for the West Midlands, the election could be the launch of a political career – in his case building on a highly successful tenure as Managing Director of John Lewis and chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
Universities have worked closely with city mayors. For example, the universities in Bristol and Bath on local growth projects, the universities in Liverpool on job creation and competitiveness strategies, and university representatives have chaired London committees and panels, including the Smart London Board, looking at how the city can adapt to new technologies.
The new mayors will cover a wider area. Clearly the policies and politics of Whitehall will continue to be highly significant for universities. But if mayors rule people in Birmingham or Brighton or Burnley in future, these individuals will suddenly become a whole lot more influential and important.
So universities should make it their business to work with the mayoral candidates in their region. It shouldn't be hard for most universities, as they already work with city mayors, sit on LEP boards, and have been closely involved with devolution discussions to date.
Mayors don't yet rule the world. But however far politics in England starts to move in that direction, universities should be active partners.