Tony Wilson, the Mancunian pop Svengali, was once asked which was England’s “second city”. He said London and Birmingham could fight it out between themselves.
In the devolution debate, Manchester undoubtedly is England’s top dog. Long after Manchester created a combined authority, negotiated Devo Manc and did a deal on health devolution, Birmingham and the West Midlands were still searching for common ground between the councils and a way to bring it all together.
While London has the greatest degree of devolved government in England under the Greater London Authority Acts (with far greater powers given to the London mayor than any regional mayor will receive), it struggles with the concept of coherent devolution within London to give more power at a truly local level.
So when the government invited English local authorities to submit proposals for devolution, it was no surprise that Manchester, rather than resting on its laurels (after all, it already had devolution), submitted the most ambitious set of proposal of any of the 38 bids received. Its wishlist has a value of £7bn, including more money for health and transport and a range of tax powers. Furthermore, with Manchester devolution proceeding at a pace, it looks further ahead and leads the way in driving forward the Northern Powerhouse to bring greater connectivity across the whole of the north.
The sheer audacity and scale of this proposal illustrates that when it comes to devolution, it is every man for himself. Manchester cannot be blamed for that. Indeed, it is Greater Manchester authorities’ relentless crusade to promote their economy, to provide the necessary infrastructure for growth and to work together that made George Osborne reach out to them in the first place.
Whenever the government asks local authorities to bid for something (eg local government reorganisation, private finance initiative support, any number of challenge funds) there are winners and losers. Devolution, it seems, is not going to be any different. The clear message is that if you want something, ask for it. Devolution is about doing deals with the government, not a universal release of powers from Whitehall to the town hall. There is no redrawing of the boundaries of statutory functions, nor of the tax system.
The Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill is only a permissive framework to allow the deals to be done. The LGC and DWF survey shows that many regret the lack of a common prescription for the transformation of English local government.
In the meantime, Manchester will just get on with it.
LGC recently conducted a survey amongst local authorities to establish their views on the likely extent of devolved powers and the impact they may have. Authorities were also asked about the devolution bids they submitted in advance of the government’s 4th September deadline.
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