Anything you can do, we can do better: Manchester’s devolution journey

The election of a new metro-mayor in 2017 won’t be an end point to devolution, but just another step on Greater Manchester’s long road to devolution

georgina-blakeley-100On May 5th 2017, voters in Greater Manchester will wake up to a new metro-mayor.  Yet will the victor be capable of delivering progressive devolution which goes beyond the current limitations of the agreed city deal?  Many leaders across Greater Manchester feel that ‘Devo-Manc’ lacks sufficient ambition and that they should wrest control of the devolution agenda from central government.  There is a growing consensus that to be meaningful, progressive devolution will have to entail some form of fiscal decentralisation as well as the principle of subsidiarity rather than the current piecemeal approach of devolving functions in certain policy areas.

Yet the metro-mayor will not face an easy task. Those factors that explain why Manchester has been and continues to be in the vanguard of the devolution agenda in England represent both opportunities and challenges.  Manchester City Council (MCC) has led the ‘Devo-Manc’ agenda and it has been thinking about and working on devolution for the city-region far longer than any other area.  This has been an advantage up until now but may later leave Manchester vulnerable to the whims of central government, particularly in health and social care devolution, if other city-regions do not share similar ambitions.  Manchester may already be regretting their reluctant acceptance of a metro-mayor now that the West Yorkshire Combined Authority is no longer under pressure from Westminster to accept this governance arrangement.

The mayoral model for Greater Manchester is also a model where mayor is just one amongst equals compared, for example, to the London model where the mayor has greater powers. Nevertheless, the mayor could still use a potentially high public profile and electoral legitimacy to gain soft power which could be used to good advantage.

The cabinet-style of mayoral model reflects the premium that MCC places on partnership working. This collaborative style has enabled the Council to gain buy-in to its vision from the business sector and from the other local authorities which comprise the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) despite the fact that not all are Labour-controlled.   At times this emphasis on collaborative working can be more about style than substance with MCC anxious to not appear overly dominant. Yet the desire for collaboration is both genuine and necessary and is perhaps best symbolised by the fact that one of the city-region’s key economic assets – Manchester  Airport – is jointly owned by all the ten local authorities even though MCC has the largest percentage.

The long-standing collaboration between the ten local authorities of the GMCA which, at least in contemporary times dates back to 1974, should not minimise the tensions amongst the ten authorities which are real. Such tensions often reflect the economic divisions between a wealthier south and a poorer north of the city-region and so a key test of devolution will be its ability to lessen these inequalities.

A more negative reading of the Manchester mayoral model is that it is designed to protect the existing power base within MCC from any challenges to its hegemony. Manchester’s leaders have been in government for a long time: Sir Howard Bernstein has been Chief Executive since 1998, though he will stand down next year, and Sir Richard Leese has provided continuity as political leader since 1996. This stability in leadership is matched by political stability in the longstanding Labour control of the council.  This longevity and stability can be advantageous: it has allowed MCC to push ahead on city-region devolution while other areas have lagged behind.  It also means that Manchester’s leaders have the luxury, oft-dreamt of by national politicians, of being able to pursue long-term initiatives which do not respond to a short electoral cycle.

This stability and continuity of leadership will prove crucial with regard to the devolution of the £6 billion NHS health and social care budget to the GMCA. While health devolution contains risks, not least within the current context of austerity, it also contains opportunities to better respond to local needs and to think creatively about how to align health spending with spending on the other areas that determine health outcomes such as transport, housing policy and employment. The figures from the 2016 Greater Manchester Strategy annual performance report show the GMCA is behind target in improving the health of residents with people becoming ill at a younger age and living with illness for longer. The stark statistics contained in the report prove how difficult this area of devolution will be, while underlining how crucial it will be to have the ability to jointly plan for the long-term in health and other related aspects of the devolution agenda such as skills, transport and housing.

Yet despite their benefits, longevity and stability in leadership can quickly become arrogance if mechanisms of accountability and scrutiny remain inadequate. City-deals were, perhaps necessarily, elite pacts but they should not remain so. Local leaders should be wary of striking deals with central government whatever the cost.  The infamous photo of Greater Manchester’s leaders beaming alongside George Osborne stuck in the throat of many voters who were already swallowing the cuts he had imposed. The mayoral election in May 2017 might well provide something of ‘the democratic moment’ that devolution requires but, while necessary to involve local people in devolution, will not be sufficient.

Given MCC’s confidence in its ability to lead the devolution agenda and its evident desire to do so, it was no wonder that the Labour candidate for the mayoral election, Andy Burnham, was so sharply criticised for remarking that the Manchester mayor is ‘a cabinet-level job, which needs cabinet-level experience’. Burnham’s insensitive remark, designed to draw attention to his own experience, rode rough-shod over the reality that Bernstein and Leese have been the cheerleaders for devolution in England for years and so infuriated Sean Anstee, the leader of Trafford Council, that he decided to stand as the Conservative candidate for metro-mayor. As the only Conservative leader amongst the ten Greater Manchester authorities, Anstee is perhaps the kind of candidate, capable of opposing Labour, that Osborne had in mind. A local Trafford lad, Anstee grew up in a council house and left school at 16 to take up an apprenticeship at Barclays: he also believes strongly in the need to address inequalities across greater Manchester.

Manchester’s approach to devolution and to Westminster has always been ‘anything you can do, we can do better’ and that mindset shows no signs of abating. As such the GMCA now, and the new mayor in 2017, shouldn’t be seen as an end point to the devolution process. May 5th will be the start of a new chapter in Greater Manchester’s political story, but also just another step on a long road to devolution which has its roots in history and its potential in the future.