Is Devo Manc a good model for English devolution? Almost …

Sprawling powers. dnisbet/Flickr, CC BY-SA

A metropolitan area formed in 1974 covering about 500 square miles; a population of more than 2.5m; an economy bigger than Wales or Northern Ireland – that’s Greater Manchester. Last year, Chancellor George Osborne unveiled proposals for a package of powers to be devolved to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. The deal – which has come to be known as “Devo Manc” – represents the most significant package of powers to be devolved to a city-region in England.

It includes control over more than £1 billion of public expenditure and new powers over areas including housing, planning, welfare to work programmes, and local transport. And in February this year, it was announced that around £1.5 billion currently spent by NHS England would be transferred to a new Greater Manchester health body.

Devo Manc has emerged because of a coincidence of interests. Manchester’s leaders have long sought greater autonomy from Whitehall. Osborne, meanwhile, was motivated by a combination of political economy and party politics. The chancellor had become convinced by leading economists, think tanks, and advisers that considerable economic potential could be unleashed through the devolution of powers to England’s cities and city regions. In addition, the fortunes of the Conservative party in the north of England troubled Osborne deeply, especially after the May 2014 council elections.

The chancellor has driven this agreement through Whitehall, often at odds with his cabinet colleagues. The hard negotiations were conducted in Whitehall over the summer of 2014, with the Scottish referendum acting as a catalyst. Manchester’s leaders were surprised at the extensive package of powers offered. It is a reminder that, for devolution to be delivered, leadership is a vital ingredient.

Osborne takes initiative. 'Andy Rain/EPA'

Why Manchester?

Greater Manchester was always going to be the guinea pig. Following Thatcher’s Local Government Act 1985, which abolished the metropolitan county councils, the governance of Greater Manchester was fragmented across ten authorities. But those authorities continued to cooperate and coordinate with each other, establishing various institutions and creating dependencies. This proven capacity to cooperate over time is another crucial component of Devo Manc.

In 2011, the area was awarded city region status by the UK government. At the same time, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) – an umbrella body, which coordinates policy and governance across the ten authorities in the area – was formed. These factors all contributed to making Greater Manchester the leading candidate for any experiment with city-region devolution.

And between Osborne’s political desire to make the Conservatives credible in the north, the broader political discussions about breaking London control, and the impact of the Scottish referendum on debates about governing England, 2014 served as the critical juncture, which allowed rapid progress to be made.

Unanswered questions

Local political leaders in the ten authorities understand the weight of responsibility they now carry, seeing themselves as trailblazers for a new form of governance, which they are confident they can deliver. They understand that if Devo Manc fails to work as planned, it could scupper similar deals. While the package of powers to be devolved is sensible and has been crafted with the issue of scale in mind, there remain unanswered questions of governance and public engagement.

As part of the deal, Osborne has insisted on a directly elected mayor for Greater Manchester. Despite local political opposition, there will be a mayor from 2017 (with an interim mayor to be appointed very shortly). That individual will chair the GMCA, serving as the 11th member, alongside the ten authority leaders. Part of my research involved speaking to local leaders in Manchester, and they will tell you the mayor will be controlled, and far from a dominant, centralising executive position. Each of the ten authorities will hold a veto over strategic planning issues, and the mayor can be outvoted by two-thirds of the ten leaders, who collectively will form the mayor’s cabinet.

But there remains a lot to work out. Given that the mayor will take over the powers currently held by the Police and Crime Commissioner, that various agencies and public bodies may be brought under the framework of a mayor’s office, and that the mayor will have responsibility for a broad set of policy areas, it is easy to see how a strong, centralising structure could emerge. It is also unclear how the leaders of the authorities will be held accountable in their role as the mayor’s cabinet, with no GMCA-wide scrutiny body.

Public engagement and involvement – or rather, the lack of it – is another major concern. Local leaders are aware that they have not done enough to engage local citizens about the plans. They argue that once an interim mayor is in place and the powers begin to be transferred, they can sell the changes to the public. But, if we are truly interested in reinvigorating local governance and participatory democracy, that is putting things the wrong way around.

Overall, Devo Manc is a positive development in the governance of the UK. A sensible package of powers is being devolved to a group of individuals who have proven themselves capable of working together. It has firm political support in Whitehall and Osborne himself is supplying Whitehall leadership. However, serious questions about governance and transparency remain. Only once they are solved can we genuinely say whether Devo Manc represents a good model for breaking Whitehall’s control.