Are We Not Men? No, We Could Be DevoManc Pretty Soon

More powers for Greater Manchester and elected mayor announced

Could an historic agreement between the ten Metropolitan Borough Councils and HM Government bring devolution back to Greater Manchester? Announced by George Osborne today, “Devo Manc” is set to give our conurbation a directly elected mayor and control over its buses. There will also be powers to oversee planning, housing and policing.

Also trumpeted in his announcement will be control over business growth and health and social care budgets. Further powers will also be devolved to the GMCA. They hope for full devolution of all of its allocated public spending.

 

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer and M.P. for Tatton stated “This is a massive moment for the North of England and our plan to build the Northern Powerhouse.” Lord Smith, chair of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority was similarly pleased. He stated that “It gives us greater control over our own destiny in several key areas and the ability to base priorities and needs, rather than on ‘one size fits all’ dictates from Westminster”.

So far, legislation is being drawn up for Greater Manchester’s 2.6 million citizens, with the first mayoral elections pencilled in for 2017. Whereas the Greater London Assembly is dominated by its mayor, the Greater Manchester scheme will see its mayor answerable to 10 leaders, possibly one from each Metropolitan Borough Council area. The question is, could this be The Son of GMC?

Son of GMC?

Prior to 1986, Greater Manchester (along with Merseyside, South and West Yorkshire, West Midlands and Greater London) had some sort of devolution as per the 1972 Local Government Act. They all had fixed term elections (1976 and 1981). The police came under the Metropolitan County Councils along with its fire service before transferring to AGMA (on abolition of GMC) and GMCA.

The idea of one tier, featuring the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and a second tier for the GMCA seems wasteful. Wouldn’t it make sense to turn the Greater Manchester Combined Authority into a Metropolitan County Council? Mayor or cabinet system? It shouldn’t be too hard; the choice of a mayoral or cabinet system should be down to Greater Manchester’s electorate, not Whitehall.

Though the plans mooted could be good for Greater Manchester, I don’t buy in to the elected mayor idea. The Mayor’s Office and his/her intermediaries, in tandem with GMCA, could see some friction between parties. One figurehead’s views could be sympathetic to those of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, though Oldhamers could be neglected. This could undermine the cooperative approach AGMA/GMCA have had for nearly 30 years.

The original GMC had 106 seats: equivalent to 10.6 seats per borough council. The 1 to 10 plan seems to be a favourable compromise between the GMC of old and the Greater London Authority. It’s a good first step, though we also need proper devolution for Northern England as well.

Part of a wider federal structure?

Putting all our eggs into one devolved basket could see the already booming Greater Manchester create a London sized gap between its counterparts in Burnley, Warrington and Glossop. The GMCA’s travel-to-work area not only includes the aforementioned three towns but also Blackburn, Macclesfield and the Cheshire stockbroker belt (including George Osborne’s seat).

A devolved Greater Manchester with its 1 to 10 structure (one mayor to each ten representatives, from a single borough council) could be a model for Merseyside, South and West Yorkshire and the West Midlands. As with Greater Manchester, they should be part of a federalised England. One with regional devolution within England based around EU constituencies. Therefore, you could have Westminster for the United Kingdom as the sovereign parliaments, and devolved parliaments covering each part of England, plus the whole of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Each region should have tax raising powers devolved from Westminster, with powers to regulate public transport services (or take into public ownership) devolved to Metropolitan and Shire Counties. In Northern England, Rail North should be given powers to take over rail franchises.

Local authorities?

At present, each of the Metropolitan Borough Councils sends a representative to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, so today’s proposals could be a seamless fit. One question remains: will we have the power to elect a mayor and a borough representative? Could the borough representative be the leader of each council (i.e. Kieran Quinn at Tameside MBC, Sean Anstee at Trafford MBC.) or separate to the council leaders?

Nothing, at the moment, has been stated about GMCA’s education remit, which I assume may be the remit of our borough councils at present.

Transport undertakings

I would assume that TfGM may be complementary to the forthcoming Greater Manchester Assembly, in the same way GMPTE was analogous to Greater Manchester County Council. The power to franchise bus routes may be a popular one with the conurbation’s electorate. Though negotiations with the bus element of Get Me There may have been finalised by then, franchising could be used to ensure high standards throughout the network on its subsidised routes. Not least control of fares, instrumental to the success of any Oyster Card style scheme.

The future?

Greater powers, towards DevoMax levels should be granted to Northern England, complemented by further powers to a future Son of GMCA.

Closer to home, the future Greater Manchester Authority should also be able to:

  • Repeal the Bedroom Tax and all DWP sanctions;
  • Postpone fracking indefinitely;
  • Use proportional representation for its elections;
  • Become part of a plan to invigorate democracy at local level: not only Metropolitan Borough Councils, but also Town, Parish and Community Councils.

If the existing ten councils and the future body makes a success of the plans, ten years from hence, should we consider the addition of the High Peak and Warrington to a future Greater Manchester Assembly? Would Glossop be better served at Albert Square instead of Matlock?

*                        *                       *

As they say, with the current package, all will be revealed. If the Greater Manchester Assembly plans work well enough, I would like to see the North of England’s other Metropolitan areas benefit. But not before we scotch the idea of an English Parliament in favour of regional parliaments for the North West, North East, South West and so forth along with our fellow home nations.

The present agreement is not perfect, but a fairly good start.

One more thing

What are your opinions on the proposals? Are you in favour of the 1 to 10 approach, or would you prefer a traditional cabinet? Would you prefer a single mayor to dominate the Greater Manchester Combined Authority? Feel free to comment away.

S.V., 03 November 2014.

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