Manchester town hall/wikimedia
The news that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is going to get new powers devolved to them from central government and a new directly-elected mayor does strike me as a bit of a fudge. Where are the proper governance mechanisms to hold the new mayor to account, for example? Will the combined authority really be able to take a strategic view about what’s best for Greater Manchester as a whole, rather than local politicians simply trying to grab a slice of the action for their little bit of Greater Manchester in true pork-barrel fashion? However, compared to the farcical plans for city mayors that the Coalition Government put forward back in 2012 (and which in the majority of cases were overwhelmingly rejected in local referenda) this new plan has at least taken some lessons on board.
The key lesson is that the reason the set-up in London has had a significant impact is that it covers a city region and can thus play a genuinely strategic role. The largely failed attempt at creating city mayors in 2012 made the ridiculous assumption that you could somehow replicate the impact of the London Mayor simply by bolting an executive mayor on to an existing local authority. But whether you like London or loathe it, whether you agree with everything that Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson have done over the last 14 years or not, what you cannot deny is that a Mayor and Assembly for Greater London have had a real impact. It would have been inconceivable that introducing the Congestion Charge, running a new London Overground service or successfully bidding for and hosting the 2012 Olympic Games (whether you agreed with that decision or not) could have happened had it just been left to thirty-three separate London local authorities to sort out.
Another lesson learnt from 2012 is that there needs to be a transfer of powers down from central government if such a reorganisation of governance arrangements is to be worthwhile. In the 2012 referenda no new powers were being offered and people saw through that. A mayoral system is not my preference. I would have preferred an Assembly for London on the Welsh model but given that, unlike the 2012 mayoral referenda, significant powers were being handed down from central government when the Mayor and Assembly for London were being created. Therefore, like the vast majority of London voters, I said yes to a Mayor and Assembly for London in the 1998 referendum.
The other lesson from 2012 is that you cannot simply draw up a blueprint for devolution in Whitehall and impose it top down. Fudge and political stitch up though the Greater Manchester plans are, at least they are a local fudge and local political stitch-up. I therefore see the Greater Manchester plans as the very start of a process rather than a final settlement. Getting significant powers on housing, transport and planning devolved from central Government and moving decision-making closer to the people of Greater Manchester, for all of its flaws, is not to be sniffed at. Those behind the plans put economic growth and rivalling London as an economic powerhouse as their main motive for pursuing this. But even if that is not your motive at all, even if your main motive is maximising environmental sustainability and redistributing wealth, then you still need powers to be devolved from Whitehall to be able to have any chance of doing that.
As someone who has been an elected London politician for the past fourteen years, but also as someone who was born and brought up in the northwest, I am passionate about seeing more powers devolved from Whitehall, not just in London but around the country, too. I want London to have more powers over taxation and borrowing so that we can reform council tax and make wealthy property owners pay their way and allow local authorities to borrow to build new council housing, for example. But conversely, I also want to see jobs and opportunities open up in other parts of the country, too, so that we are not simply putting more and more pressure on London and the southeast, losing green space and overloading our transport system, while other areas suffer continued decline. For that to be achieved we need a radical decentralisation of power.
Devolution in the UK is never going to proceed at a single unified pace and opportunities to decentralise decision-making from central government need to be grabbed as they come along. Different solutions will come forward for different parts of the country. In some cases, like in Greater Manchester and Greater London, this could be city regions. In other more rural areas, like Cumbria and Cornwall, this could come through giving existing county councils far more powers and turning them into fully-fledged regional assembles, as many in Cornwall are actively campaigning for. There will never be one size fits all for devolution in the UK and if we try to wait for that we’ll wait forever.
If I were in Greater Manchester, therefore, I would be cautiously welcoming this small, tentative step towards devolution, for all its flaws, but campaigning for a proper, directly-elected assembly to hold the new mayor to account and to speak up for the people of Greater Manchester, and one with more powers than the London Assembly currently has I would hasten to add!
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