The 2014 Agreement may be flawed, but it is the latest step in a long journey to increase the city-region’s economic and political leverage
Little changes. Robert Peel’s famous declaration in the 1840s that ‘what Manchester thinks today, the world thinks tomorrow’ could easily apply to Manchester’s early role in city-region devolution. True to their history of collaboration, partnership-working and political pragmatism, Manchester’s political leaders were the first to take advantage of the newly favourable national political environment to craft a devolution deal for their city-region, something which in general terms they had been working towards for years.
The Greater Manchester Agreement of 2014 set out a range of powers and devolved budgets to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and detailed the transition to a directly-elected mayor for the city-region to whom further powers would be devolved. However, this was only the starting point in what has turned into a continuing bargaining process between central government and Manchester’s political leaders. Health and social care was an addition to the original Agreement and the Comprehensive Spending Review in November 2015 detailed further powers.
It is easy to criticise the agreed deal. There has as yet been little public involvement in the process and even some local councillors and regional MPs feel they have been kept out of the negotiations leading up to the deal. Others have criticised the acceptance of a directly-elected city-region mayor, while some are sceptical of the scale of powers and budgets devolved, arguing that this amounts to little of substance. Deeper disagreements can be found in further arguments that assert that city-region devolution does little to alter the constitutional make-up of the United Kingdom or the inequalities which characterise the current economy. Even worse, it is argued, this whole approach to devolution will lead to a patchwork of different arrangements across the country, as inevitably winning and losing cities are forced to compete with each other.
Such criticisms are valid. Yet they lack a historical perspective which points up the specific character of Manchester politics. Although the Scottish referendum undoubtedly provided impetus, these various recent devolutionary moves were preceded by political initiatives dating back to the reform of local government in the 1970s and earlier. Indeed, as far back as the late 19th century, Manchester City Council was arguing for greater autonomy, often securing independent legislation to deliver services which were different to those prescribed nationally. In the 1920s and 1930s there was some awareness of the relationship between the city itself and the surrounding towns which the mechanism of Joint Boards could not entirely satisfy.
In more contemporary times, there has in fact been a clear policy trajectory towards some form of city-region governance. The GMCA has its roots in the Association for Greater Manchester Authorities formed in 1986 in light of the abolition of the Greater Manchester Council that same year. Other milestones in this policy journey include the Manchester Independent Economic Review in 2008-9 which provided the evidence base for the Greater Manchester Strategy and the achievement of city-region pilot status in 2009. In short, the Greater Manchester Agreement is really only the latest incarnation of the longstanding desire of Manchester to overcome its under-bounded nature and make the most of the economic and social weight the city enjoys vis-à-vis its surrounding conurbations. The leaders of the ten city councils have in effect recognised the reality that the city of Manchester is the economic employment and cultural hub for the wider city-region.
The November Comprehensive Spending Review has not removed the concerns of those who criticise the Manchester Agreement on the grounds that it constitutes ‘policy dumping’ without sufficient resources. There is much substance in the arguments that local governments are being forced simply to manage the cuts imposed by central government. Yet, although austerity and cut-backs in local government remain the political reality, GMCA’s leaders remain confident of their ability to manage limited resources more effectively and sensitively at the local level.
While Manchester’s political leaders might demur from the suggestion that the directly-elected mayor was the price that had to be paid to secure the Greater Manchester Agreement, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a condition imposed by central government. It is true that there had been growing recognition within the GMCA of the need to strengthen its governance arrangements and the idea of an ‘eleventh chair’ had been mooted. This suggests that the current Conservative government’s claim that the introduction of a directly-elected mayor will strengthen GMCA’s accountability and the hope by Greater Manchester’s leaders that the election will provide a ‘democratic moment’ to engage the local electorate cannot be completely dismissed, although good grounds for scepticism unquestionably remain. The GMCA will also need strengthened scrutiny arrangements to meet concerns about democratic accountability.
In short, ever since the mid-1980s, Manchester’s political leaders have adopted a strategy of working with national governments (of whatever persuasion) to get the best deal possible for Manchester. This has required political leadership skills and a commitment to collaboration and partnership working between Manchester, its surrounding authorities and the business community. For critics, the current city-region devolution deal is taking political pragmatism too far; for sympathisers, it is but the latest step in a journey to secure greater political and economic leverage for Greater Manchester.