DevoManc: Could the Republic of Greater Mancunia Become Reality?

Q: Are We Not Men? A: No, We Are Manc

The United Kingdom: a population of around 62 million. One that is still united in its post-1707 form thanks to Better Together winning the argument (55% against Scottish Independence on Friday 19 September 2014). In the light of Scotland’s big day, which recorded a record turnout, there was calls for devolution in England. Not only an English Parliament (as suggested by Wokingham and Wellingborough Conservative MPs John Redwood and Peter Bone respectively) but also city-wide devolution.

In short, the possibility of a Republic of Mancunia. More realistically, a realisation that the 1986 abolition of the Metropolitan County Councils was a retrograde step?

For twelve years up to the 01 April 1986, Greater Manchester comprised of its ten Metropolitan Borough Councils and the GMC, Greater Manchester County Council. Metropolitan Borough Councils as of now included LEAs, social services provision, public libraries and parks. The GMC’s responsibilities included the Greater Manchester County Fire Brigade, Greater Manchester Police, traffic management and part of GMPTE. Functions hitherto carried out by GMC transferred to AGMA – now today’s GMCA, or the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. GMPTE (now TfGM) remained a separate departmental body as per Barbara Castle’s 1968 Transport Act.

On the 15 September 2014, think-tank Respublica released Devo Max – Devo Manc, a publication which proposes greater devolution for Britain’s city centres. Co-written by Philip Blond and Mark Morrin, Greater Manchester is singled out as the one area where Scottish style devolution should be considered. At present, Greater Manchester has the second largest economy after Greater London. It has a more buoyant economy than the whole of Wales, though with over 300,000 short of the principality’s population. After the Conservatives’ abolition of the GMC, there has been a degree of cooperation with the ten councils and AGMA/GMCA.

So far, Greater Manchester’s council leaders have been in talks with the Treasury. Details of which will be announced in this year’s Autumn Statement.

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Inside Devo Max – Devo Manc 

  • Devo Manc, Philip Blond and Mark Morrin (© 2014 Respublica).

The report proposes a ‘place-based settlement… leading to the full and final devolution of… [its] public spending’. It states that Greater Manchester has:

“one of the highest levels of in-commuting in the country… [thus meaning] Greater Manchester’s local authorities have a more economically interdependent and complementary relationship than local authorities in most other city regions in the UK”.

The economy of central Manchester and effectiveness of the combined authority’s transport system is key to Manchester’s continued success as a 21st century city. The Place Based Settlement suggests:

  • Multi-year budgets for longer-term investment planning;
  • Devolved funding free from ring fencing with significant accompanying exemption from national requirements;
  • Shared Outcomes Frameworks – replacing central targets;
  • Reinvestment of additional fiscal savings through reform into economic growth programmes;
  • A calculated percentage of the central overheads, presently borne by Whitehall.

The first two parts of the report details the economics of our combined authority and gives an overview of the challenges it faces. Parts of Greater Manchester are still suffering from Thatcher’s government and economic decline from the 1960s before then.

The third part details the need for possible change. It claims that spending cuts in local government has been annulled in higher acute health and care, and Social Security budgets. Among its solutions, it advocates a Whole Place view with a decentralisation of budgets from government departments to local authorities and city regions. Public service users could be seen from a Whole Person view, with emphasis on personalised services. Also considered is the promotion and application of new models of local Social Finance Initiatives, to help build local and community owned assets. It also suggests the extension of the Social Value Act, enabling community owned organisations to compete for public tenders.

Chapter four states in greater detail our combined authority’s economic case. A graph shows how expenditure on Social Security benefits have risen from £8.5billion (2008-09) to £9.3billion (2012-13), no doubt affected by public sector job cuts. The fifth offers an overview of Greater Manchester’s public service reform programme. Much emphasis is given on its delivery of the Troubled Families programme, Healthier Together and individual care plans. The last point a continuation of the Whole Person view. It praises how the GMCA has gone further in recasting its public services – no doubt a causal affect of its unsatisfactory local government settlement and best use of other funding streams.

The sixth section details how Greater Manchester can be devolved. It supports greater control of the five property taxes (business rates, stamp duty, council tax, annual tax on enveloped dwellings, and capital gains property development tax. It advocates genuine local decision making though with consideration given to proper constitutional and democratic governance models.

Among the options floated include a ‘senate’ with each of the 10 council’s leaders, directly elected mayors, and assemblies. Prior to GMC’s abolition, there was two elections with GMC ran by Conservatives from 1976 to 1981, and Labour in its last five years. It also sets a programme for its first 100 days and details of its funding arrangements. 2020 is pencilled in as a possible year for when Greater Manchester could gain further tax-raising powers. It claims that GMCA’s continued work with its ten local authorities is key to a successfully devolved Greater Manchester.

The brief seventh and final part (which you should read if you cannot be bothered with nor have the patience to read the pamphlet in full) details succinctly recommendations for local and central government. In more truncated form it suggests:

To Central Government:

  • Full budgetary devolution to the GMCA;
  • The delivery of fiscal devolution to the GMCA;
  • Extending the legal powers of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

To Greater Manchester:

  • The development of greater accountability and governance;
  • Commitment to a model of greater devolution for localities.

To Central Government and Greater Manchester:

  • Incremental steps towards devolution;
  • The creation of a cross-party Local Accounts Committee;
  • Greater accountability to Parliament.

Messrs Blond’s and Morrin’s report assumes that growth is a key driver to Greater Manchester’s success as a devolved region. It suggests greater localisation in pre-19 education provision, Social Security provision and lifelong learning. It is good in some parts, but the powers of a fully devolved Greater Manchester needs to go further. The need to improve public transport has an affect on the Whole Person viewpoint and should be seen from a Whole Place view.

The role of incumbent Metropolitan Borough Councils seems to be ambiguous. Do they form part of the Whole Place and if so, would this make Stalybridge a suburb of Ashton-under-Lyne or Shaw a suburb of Oldham? Would incumbent Parish/Community/Town Councils be classed under ‘hyper-localism’? Could the Social Finance Initiative see public services disappear from the ten Metropolitan Borough Councils in favour of Community Interest Companies or voluntary sector groups? Could Devo Manc see a transfer of each borough’s libraries to the GMCA, in preparation for future mutualisation or privatisation?

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What else should Devo Manc offer?

First and foremost, Devo Manc should see greater control of its transport operations. The newly invigorated GMCA could continue to work with Transport for Greater Manchester. Additionally, TfGM should be granted powers to, for example:

  • Regulate and – where necessary – operate local bus services with all vehicles sporting the White, Orange and Brown (Greater Manchester Transport’s 1981) livery;
  • Have greater control on rail fare rates, including an ability to overturn the Department for Transport’s evening peak hour increases;
  • Clamp down on the proliferation of Zombie Car Parks: though for some a cheap and cheerful option, they do blight our landscape.

Secondly, the DWP’s training schemes should come under the full control of the GMCA rather than money-grubbing primes. Recent steps towards this have been considered in Scotland.

Thirdly, that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority should have a Living Wage rate, set across its ten borough councils.

Fourthly – for improved health outcomes and common sense in planning – the whole of Greater Manchester and its surrounding area should be a Fracking Free Zone – in perpetuity – in the same way Manchester City Council declared itself a Nuclear Free Zone in 1980.

At borough council level and below, there should be greater encouragement and devolution within its towns. Towns and villages should be encouraged to form Parish Councils and Town Councils; both could apply for contracts if Social Finance Initiative schemes were inaugurated.

Furthermore, the GMCA should also be encouraged to provide and build new social housing schemes, whether at borough council, Whole Town or GMCA levels.

The focus on Devo Manc shouldn’t be on economic growth alone. A devolved Greater Manchester should also be a beacon for social justice. It should treat its citizens and visitors fairly. Whether in Ardwick or Denshaw, it should be a pleasant place to live.

Where next?

Perhaps in future years, a devolved Greater Manchester could expand beyond its current boundaries. By 2030, it could take in Warrington, Alderley Edge and most of the High Peak boundary up to Furness Vale in the south, covering New Mills, Hayfield and Glossop. Could we see more borough councils form part of a 3.5 million plus populated GMCA?

What do you think?

Is the Republic of Mancunia a reality? Would greater devolution be a positive panacea for Greater Manchester? Do you have any suggestions to add to or improve upon? Or, do you think these ideas are absolute tosh? Comment away, articulately of course.

S.V., 20 September 2014.

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2 thoughts on “DevoManc: Could the Republic of Greater Mancunia Become Reality?

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  1. Only if surrounding District Councils, particularly those who are not part of Greater Manchester but have been roped into the Northern Rail/DfT stitch up on Evening Peak fares restrictions can have a referendum as to whether they can join . Greater Manchester could run from north of Burscough to south of Buxton.

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    1. Hi Mwmbwls,

      I agree with your possible ideas for an expanded GMCA. For a start, my local CAMRA group [High Peak and North East Cheshire] takes in Chelmorton and Sparrowpit – south and west of Buxton! Furthermore, a GMCA which is more consistent with Manchester’s travel to work area offers possible scope for higher council tax revenues. Particularly so as high value properties in Mottram St. Andrew and Alderley Edge would mean more high rate council tax payers in our conurbation.

      The question is whether the Borough of Macclesfield’s electorate would agree to being part of an expanded GMCA or remain proud East Cestrians (likewise our fellows from Burscough with West Lancashire). For its rail commuters, it would be a logical move as would adding the unitary authority of Warrington would.

      Time to get the pencils out for a possible boundary of a new Republic of Greater Mancunia. It could have Woodhead and Saltersbrook to the eastern extremity, Warrington to the west, plus Knutsford and Macclesfield in the south, and the whole of High Peak Borough Council to its south eastern parts.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

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