"yesterday's men put in charge of the future"
The effects of the Scottish
independence referendum continue to rock round the country. The issue
of devolution has become a hot topic, not just in Glasgow and
Motherwell, but Greater Manchester too. The three main parties (if
there is such a thing these days) have all signed up to a deal for
more devolved powers for the metropolitan borough with the condition
of an elected mayor.
The speed of this agreement and its sudden announcement has taken many by surprise. Far from empowering people in Manchester by involving them in shaping how our city region is to be run, we have a deal stitched up behind closed doors by the ruling elite. It's also a deal that is clearly formed to help the powers that be hang on to their influence.
The Mayor will have to work with the GMCA as their cabinet essentially. If you are wondering what the GMCA is you are probably not alone. It comprises the 10 leaders of the constituent councils of Greater Manchester. So the people of our city will have no direct democratic control. The Mayor will be a complete hostage to this body, as two thirds can reject the strategy and change
budgets. As things stand, this gives Labour an iron grip without them have to get a single vote directly.
There is no mention in the agreement document of anything like the London Assembly. Wales' 3 million inhabitants have an assembly, while our rulers have unilaterally decided that Greater Manchester's 2.7 million do not deserve one. The whole construction means the Mayor risks becoming an empty personality.
The lack of an assembly means it will be business as usual. If there is anything that Manchester desperately needs right now to be a “northern powerhouse”, it is new blood, creativity and breadth of opinion in its policy makers. The dismal photocall that accompanied the DevoManc announcement was the polar opposite. It showed yesterday's men (sic) put in charge of our
Nevertheless, that future was greeted with quite a lot of purple prose. The detail is of course more mundane. Greater Manchester is to get control of various money pots - a housing investment fund, apprenticeship grants, complex dependency budgets for instance. These will have to operate in very specific ways, and for example the housing fund can be taken back by the HCA. The room
for manoeuvre is very small. It's difficult to see what concrete different choices the electorate could usefully have about how different Mayors could administer these pots. To be frank all this requires is a moderately competent accountant.
Maybe the best thing about the agreement is greater control over the “earnback” money comprising £900 million over 30 years for substantial projects, even though this is not new funding. Even so it has to be said that “What do we want?” “An Earnback Deal!” “When do we want it?” “After a gateway assessment!” hardly makes the political heart beat faster. To put it in context, the Trafford line extension is scheduled to cost £350 million, over a decade's worth of “earnback”.
There is no substantial new money coming to Greater Manchester. But what the deal does do is commit the Mayor and their cabinet to “fiscal consolidation” and taking any “reductions that are made to devolved funding streams” - in English, cuts. Just to be clear, Greater Manchester Labour has agreed to a cuts framework made by the Tories. In the bigger picture, any mayor would still have to do what a Conservative government told them.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this deal overall is that it shows a potential for change and a direction of travel. But that journey has to be determined by people from Ramsbottom to Reddish, not the same old collection of knights of the realm. Until that changes, devolution this is not.
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