Manchester, along with other major UK cities, has long argued that Britain is over-centralised.
The current one-size-fits-all way of running the country, which leaves places reliant on funding from Westminster and comes with many strings attached, is stifling and inefficient. The Scottish referendum debate has ignited the whole issue of devolution to England’s cities.
A recent interview with Manchester City Council Leader Sir Richard Leese, who is also Vice-chairman of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, gives us some insight into what the devolution debate is all about.
What do we mean by devolution?
Devolution means the passing down of power. But power isn’t quite the right word. What Greater Manchester, along with Britain’s other largest cities, is asking for is increased freedoms and flexibilities to tailor our budget and priorities to our own region’s needs.
Rather than having hundreds of different central funding streams, with different and sometimes contradictory rules about how they can be spent, we believe we could do much more with the freedom to shape funding to address local needs.
Why should Greater Manchester have it?
Greater Manchester’s population of 2.7million is bigger than that of many countries. It’s slightly less than that of Wales, and larger than Northern Ireland’s. Our economy is bigger, contributing £50.9billion a year to the UK, compared to Wales’ £47.36billion, yet we have considerably less freedom over our funding and spending priorities.
Comparable cities in Europe, such as Munich and Barcelona, enjoy far greater autonomy.
What difference would it make?
We believe that given greater freedom to make decisions and use funding based on local needs and opportunities, Greater Manchester could help create better conditions for economic growth and job creation, and help residents reach their full potential to access those jobs.
To give one simple example, greater control over our skills budget would enable us to increase the number of higher level apprenticeships to create a workforce with skills that better match the jobs being created.
Devolution would also help us, through greater influence over regeneration and housing for instance, to create quality neighbourhoods that people want to live and invest in.
Centrally imposed funding cuts have not reduced the overall amount of public spending in Greater Manchester in the past decade because cuts in one sector have only led to knock-on costs in another.
We believe we could reduce public spending, not by cutting services but by helping those on benefits, in poor health or with troubled lifestyles to become independent and find work.
Does this mean a London-style mayor?
In Greater Manchester we believe we should build on the current arrangements, which work well, rather than add an extra layer of government.
What happens next?
We will keep pressing the case to persuade politicians from all the main political parties to commit to devolution for cities.
We don’t believe this process should move at the pace of the slowest places to develop, but at the pace of those places which have demonstrated they are ready, and should be allowed to get on with it. Greater Manchester is uniquely well placed because of our long tradition of working together, and in recent years this co-operation has been taken to a new level through the establishment of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
We also don’t accept the argument that the increased devolution for Scotland, promised by the Government, has to be sorted out before attention can turn to English devolution. It’s too important an issue.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer and leaders of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority signed a devolution agreement on 3 November 2014. The agreement will result in devolving new powers and responsibilities to Greater Manchester, and Greater Manchester adopting a directly elected Mayor for the city-region.