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Metro-mayors’ accountability: what is it for, what form should it take?

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at night, partially obscured by lines of colour from the speed of a double decker bus.

The need for effective accountability to accompany devolution of power to metro-mayors in England ran through the Levelling Up White Paper published in February 2022. The White Paper stated that a new accountability framework would be created, including “clear roles and metrics for assessment”, “strong local scrutiny mechanisms”, provision for “appropriate forums for local media, local councillors and local residents to review the performance of authorities with devolved functions”, and identification of “key outcomes to allow comparisons between areas with devolution” [1].  To this end, multiple interventions regarding local socio-economic data, led by a new body tasked with collating and presenting what exists, can be found in the White Paper.  

Accountability has long been the Cinderella of devolved governance within England. Government documents, and commentary, frequently uses ‘accountability’ as a catch-all term, rarely defining its purpose or exploring what successful accountability looks like. These various uses of the term encapsulate confusion about the concept. What is accountability for, who owes it to whom, and what duties does it place on different actors? These are harder questions than they appear. As Murphy et al note, “accountability is … a ‘chameleon’ concept. It appears easily understood by the public, politicians, and academics alike, yet when financial and/or service failure occurs, and we start looking for people to hold to account, this shared understanding tends to come apart fairly easily” [2].

These questions also take on specific forms when they are applied to sub-national governance. The core challenge for any framework at the local scale is how to balance local leaders’ accountability to their local electorates with Government requirements for ‘upward accountability’. Local electoral accountability is a core rationale for the existence of metro-mayors. At the same time, the Government has placed considerable strictures and assurance demands on metro-mayors. This has taken the form of ring-fenced grants, business cases, and mandatory reporting and evaluation. These structures squeeze the decision space available to metro-mayors. Government demands may also not align with a mayor’s capacity to respond to local priorities. 

The accountability structures established in the wake of the Levelling Up White Paper will have to manage this tension. However, the conceptual fuzziness surrounding ‘accountability’ within the English devolution debate could mean that upward accountability comes to dominate metro-mayoralties by default. To broaden this debate, this paper explores four dimensions of accountability that feature in the Levelling Up White Paper and/or have been present in the wider debate on devolution in England. These are:

  • Reporting on the propriety and value for money of the devolved institution’s decision-making. At a fundamental level this is provided by public audit procedures, but it can extend to central assurance derived from monitoring grant spending, decision-making processes, or outcomes;
  • Sufficient financial and human resource to collect (or collate) socio-economic data that relates to the responsibilities of the local elected body to be held accountable;
  • Qualitative interpretation of socio-economic data and local authority performance, explaining the critical findings to the lay reader. This acts as a corrective to ‘data dumping’ – the practice of making data available without context, risking misinterpretation;
  • Procedures whereby the data and interpretation is publicised, and responsible officials are questioned in public regarding performance, decision-making, and failures.

The paper sketches out some options that would allow the aspirations of the Levelling Up White Paper to be met. The aim is to provide some conceptual backing for decisions that will be made through 2022 and 2023, as the new accountability framework is assembled. The discussion is divided into the four elements of accountability described above: upward accountability and assurance; obtaining data; interpreting data; and publicising information in the political and media realms.

Upward accountability

At the core of upward accountability is Government management of the public finances. Permanent secretaries of UK government departments are personally accountable to Parliament for the use of public money by their department. Reporting requirements transmit that accountability to ‘delivery partners’ such as metro-mayors, as set out in DLUHC’s accounting officer system statement [3].  This implies that the purpose of upward accountability is to guarantee legal propriety and value for money in the use of funding.

Metro-mayors also operate within a broader National Local Growth Assurance Framework. This requires each mayor to operate their own assurance framework; to develop business cases in line with the Green Book, and evaluation arrangements; and to follow departmental guidelines for assessing transport and further education spending. The framework says that its purpose is to “provide additional clarity on Government’s expectations of MCAs” [4].  

The NLGAF is sufficiently detailed that it is likely to restrict the decision space available to metro-mayors. This is abetted by the ‘bureaucratic overhead’ experienced by mayors when seeking to bid for additional funds from a range of dozens of central government programmes. For instance, a report from the LIPSIT project at the University of Surrey, in 2021, stated that “regional decision makers end up knowingly spending funds on projects and initiatives that are unlikely to deliver the desired outcomes” [5].  A report from the Institute for Government in May 2022 suggested that the restrictions of the NLGAF reflected a wider reluctance to permit decision space to mayors [6].

To balance assurance and democratic accountability, some recent commentary has proposed that metro-mayors should be required to meet a small number of ‘outcome-based’ metrics. The aim in principle is to alter upward accountability by swapping outcome measures for assurance processes. Think-tanks reports have proposed combining sources of funding, which would serve to reduce the bureaucratic overhead around bidding and reporting – making mayors accountable for results instead of procedures. Determining a set of outcomes-based metrics could be a role taken on by the new Office for Local Government (OFLOG). Diverting attention away from procedures toward outcomes would align with the advantages of local leadership: flexibility, speed, and overcoming (central) departmentalism.

The concept of ‘outcome measures’ does not itself balance upward and electoral accountability. To avoid replicating existing assurance processes, outcome measures would need to be small in number. They would also need to be realistic. Much mayoral responsibility for policies is only partial, with functions and spending remaining outside mayoral control (examples include housing, skills, and transport). Outcome measures that did not take account of the partial nature of mayoral powers would generate tension between the centre and the locality. These concerns reflect recent thinking within NHS England, grappling with a similar range of organisational issues surrounding the establishment of Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) in 2022:

….the centre should identify a small number of national priorities covering improvements in care and health outcomes. ICSs should be held to account for delivering national priorities and should also agree a small number of local priorities as part of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with regional offices. …. Both national and local priorities should be expressed as whole-system targets in recognition that the interaction among parts of a system are often more important than the actions of individual parts. The focus should be on the core purpose of improving population health, working through a diverse asset-based partnership of local people and leaders [7].

The question of what happens if outcome measures are missed would also need to be clarified. This is particularly important regarding whole system targets, or any metric that applies to metro-mayors. Holding mayors to account for the performance of a system in which they formed one amongst many influences would be unproductive, and responding to missed metrics by removing powers would make little sense. And it would be desirable to avoid “gaming and misreporting of data” which characterised some previous performance regimes in the NHS [8].  Debates on ICS accountability within the NHS have been learning- rather than sanction-focused, emphasising (for instance) “matching accountability for results with improvement support” and “compassionate leadership behaviours that underpin all oversight interactions” [9].  But these remain in competitive tension with upward accountability procedures with a longer pedigree.

In practice, the Government appears reluctant to intervene in local governance ecosystems. All metro-mayors so far have passed the ‘gateway reviews’ used to monitor their investment funds. Assurance of city deal funding has been patchy. Government has shown little appetite to intervene in the running of mayoral combined authorities: for instance, no action was taken in response to a demand in 2022 from combined authority members to suspend the mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Publication of information – and the threat of Government exercising reserve powers, as much as their use – could provide sufficient levers of accountability for the Government’s purposes.

Data collection

The collection and interpretation of trend data provides a critical input to any accountability framework. The local government sector has struggled with this type of function in the 2010s and 2020s, under tight financial strictures. The Government has acknowledged that there is limited capacity to collect good data at local level going forward, and that sub-national GDP data in particular is lacking [10].  Data features repeatedly in the Levelling Up White Paper, with the Government committing to a strategy of: 

  1. producing and disseminating more timely, granular and harmonised subnational statistics through the Government Statistical Service’s Subnational Data Strategy;
  2. making granular data publicly available through a number of tools, including a new ONS interactive subnational data explorer;
  3. harnessing data visualisation techniques and building capacity within the ONS to help decision-makers better understand and compare outcomes; and
  4. increasing incentives to evaluate, monitor and experiment in levelling up policies and programmes [11]. 

The White Paper’s prioritisation of data collection, on a geographically granular basis, is to be led by a new data collection body (provisionally christened the ‘Office of Local Government’ or ‘OFLOG’), which is to provide data for the benefit of citizens, local leaders and the Government [12].  The early indications are that this body will prioritise the collation of existing data as it establishes itself. It is not yet clear how it would relate to, or promote local data collection capacity. 

In the longer term, OFLOG could develop a framework of data collection that includes the “clear roles for metrics and assessment” sought by the White Paper. Collecting the raw data for these would be a natural fit with collecting socio-economic data. In this respect, what data is collected would itself be a critical question. For instance, one of the potential strengths of mayors is their capacity to join up policy, and policy impacts, at a local level; and to take forward ‘orphan policies’, matters which are neglected by other tiers of government. If these strengths are to be recognised and encouraged, metrics and evaluation must reflect that. Awareness of this issue is developing within Government: the Public Accounts Committee noted in May 2022 that the Department of Transport was including “measures around the role that transport plays in connecting people to jobs and services, unlocking housing and wider investment, and decarbonisation” in its assessments of local growth [13].  Other orphan policies include areas such as net zero and public health: collecting data relevant to these areas would boost their profile locally and nationally, and facilitate metro-mayors’ attention to those matters. 

Institutions and resourcing

In order to ensure quality, legitimacy and institutional longevity, data collection and interpretation could be located within a relevant faculty of a university within the locality. This could save on cost by drawing on existing capacity and avoid a long lead-in time establishing a new institution. Contracting with a university department would also bring legitimacy and expertise to data collection, and it could reduce the instability potentially associated with a small, independent body. This is a similar proposal to the one in chapter 5 of the March 2022 MetroDynamics report Prosperous Places: Local Research Partnerships.

Using local capacity in this way would not prevent OFLOG from determining standard metrics to be collected across England, and OFLOG could then focus on making comparative data easily available. The local team could also draw on specialist analysis from elsewhere in the university on demand, and draw on existing data storage and hardware capacity. 


A university department would also be an appropriate location to provide interpretation of socio-economic data for lay (and political) consumption. This is a distinct role from public audit, which cannot stray into analysis of policy decisions. Narrating and interpreting information is critical to accountability, as much as making the information transparently available. As Murphy et al (2018) argue:

…the perception is that transparency is relatively less expensive through the capacity and capability of the internet to disseminate large quantities of data that citizens readily have access to for potential analytical exercises. … [but] any significant loss of professional capacity and capability regarding information and its interrogation is unlikely to be made up for by an army of armchair auditors that critically analyse and interpret raw data – citizens may perceive that they have better things to do, even assuming they had the ability to do it [14].

Again, a university department would be well placed to publish and publicise evaluative reports based on the data that it had collected, and liaise with other localities to derive comparative findings. Its legitimacy and capacity – and hence the profile of the reports – could be strong due to its location in the locality.


Good quality data and information aids both upward accountability and local electoral accountability. An added dimension of local accountability is the provision of a forum in which local leaders must answer questions. This is acknowledged in the White Paper, which cites “appropriate forums for local media, local councillors and local residents to review the performance of authorities with devolved functions” [15]. 

To date, this role has fallen to the overview and scrutiny committees of mayoral combined authorities. As with overview and scrutiny committees in local government, they have broad powers to summon and question metro-mayors and their officials, and to publish reports. They have been subject to some critiques: member attendance and impact appear to be variable [16].  Proposals to strengthen them have emerged, including paying members; reducing the quorum (currently a very high two-thirds of membership); appointing independent members, or MPs, to the committees alongside local councillors; and transforming them into ‘local Public Accounts Committees’, small independent monitoring bodies [17].  

However, access to the data and interpretation resources mentioned above would be core to the effectiveness of any future iteration of overview and scrutiny panels. This would enable them to receive reports from the local data team, but also to publish their own reports, drawing heavily on the data team’s work but adding the views of committee members – just as the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee frequently publish reports on similar topics.


Instituting the procedures set out above would enhance local accountability for metro-mayors, in line with the focuses set out in the Levelling Up White Paper: clear roles for devolved institutions, appropriate forums for reviewing performance, and enabling public judgement of mayoral performance [18].  It would strengthen the accountability procedures for strong local leadership to which the Levelling Up White Paper aspires. The production and comparison of local data would also assist in longer-term assessments of the levelling up agenda – and it would provide valued data for local leaders and electorates that is currently not available. 

The capacity to produce locally owned information, from a respected and legitimate source, will be crucial to improving accountability. NHS Integrated Care Systems, facing challenges of joint working and system accountability that parallel those in metro-mayoralties, will also depend on capacity in order to enhance accountability to local people [19].  ICSs too are new institutions emerging into an environment characterised by traditions of centralisation, and it is likely that they and mayoral combined authorities will face many comparable challenges.

HM Treasury might balk at the prospect of ‘losing control’ over processes of accountability. However, it would still have access to annual audit and value for money data, and the localised data assembled by and on behalf of OFLOG. It would also retain the option of ‘deep dives’ if developments in a particular mayoralty caused concerns. This parallels Sir Chris Ham’s report on NHS ICSs, in which he proposes that “the starting point should be an assumption of autonomy with freedoms being constrained only when significant performance challenges were encountered… reducing the burden of regulation and creating opportunities for leaders to look up less and to look out more” [20]. 

The debate on metro-mayoral accountability has additional dimensions. For instance, proposals for fiscal devolution to mayors (or local authorities) often suggest that locally-raised revenue will enhance the accountability of elected officials. On a different tack, a question exists regarding how to hold accountable those local public bodies and services that remain under central control. But answers to either of those questions will be made easier by a framework for accountability that embodies clear goals.

Mark Sandford
October 2022

1. DLUHC, Levelling Up the United Kingdom, 2022, p139
2. Murphy, P. and Ferry, L. and Glennon, R. and Greenhalgh, K. (2019). Public service accountability: rekindling a debate. Palgrave Macmillan, p5
3. DLUHC, Accounting Officer System Statement, 2020, p34
4. DLUHC, National Local Growth Assurance Framework, 2021, p9
5. LIPSIT, Delivering levelling up, 2021, p17
6. Akash Paun, Alex Nice and Lucy Rycroft, How metro-mayors can help level up England, June 2022, p57
7. Sir Chris Ham, Governing the NHS in England: creating the conditions for success, Feb 2022, p43-44
8. Sir Chris Ham, Governing the NHS in England: creating the conditions for success, Feb 2022, p24
9. Ibid., p27
10. Public Accounts Committee, Supporting local economic growth, HC-252 2022-23, 18 May 2022, p16
11. DLUHC, Levelling Up the United Kingdom, 2022, p150
12. DLUHC, Levelling Up the United Kingdom, 2022, p139
13. Public Accounts Committee, Supporting local economic growth, HC-252 2022-23, 18 May 2022, p15
14. Murphy, P. and Ferry, L. and Glennon, R. and Greenhalgh, K. (2019). Public service accountability: rekindling a debate. Palgrave Macmillan, p12-13
15. DLUHC, Levelling Up the United Kingdom, 2022, p139
16. See Jennifer Williams, “Is Greater Manchester politically accountable enough for a £1bn ‘levelling up’ deal?,” Manchester Evening News, 7 Oct 2021; Akash Paun, Alex Nice and Lucy Rycroft, How metro mayors can help level up England, Institute for Government, 2022, chapter 7
17. See Akash Paun, Alex Nice and Lucy Rycroft, How metro mayors can help level up England, Institute for Government, 2022; Adam Hawksbee, Give Back Control: Realising the Potential of England’s Mayors, UK Onward, 2022; Ed Hammond, Local Public Accounts Committees, Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, 2018.
18. DLUHC, Levelling Up the United Kingdom, 2022, p139
19. Sir Chris Ham, Governing the NHS in England: creating the conditions for success, Feb 2022, p12
20. Ibid., p40