Will the Manchester model work elsewhere?by Jonathan Derbyshire / September 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
At the beginning of September, the leaders of a number of urban areas (or “city regions”), including Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham and Sheffield, agreed in principle to introduce elected mayors in return for the devolving of powers from Westminster. They were responding to a deadline set by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had made the adoption of elected mayors the condition of further devolution.
Osborne’s offer was modelled on the “Greater Manchester Agreement” that the Treasury signed with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) in November 2014. That agreement stipulated that a directly elected mayor for the region would receive a range of new powers, including control over the transport budget and a new housing investment fund, as well as responsibility for strategic planning. Mayoral elections in Greater Manchester are scheduled for 2017; in the meantime, Tony Lloyd, a former Labour MP who is now the GMCA’s Police and Crime Commissioner, is acting as interim mayor.
In extending the offer to other city regions, Osborne appears to have assumed that what has worked for Manchester will work elsewhere. But it is not clear that this follows, necessarily. After all, Manchester has advantages—including stable leadership and coherent economic geography—not enjoyed by all its counterparts. If the other cities’ somewhat lukewarm embrace of elected mayors is anything to go by, the case that the Manchester model can be applied elsewhere remains to be made. Voters in Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield, for example, had already rejected city mayors in 2012, while the constituent councils of the North East Combined Authority accepted the Chancellor’s offer only after concerted lobbying from business leaders in the region.
In an interview with Prospect, Lloyd acknowledged that Manchester has had a head start. “George Osborne didn’t invent the capacity for Greater Manchester to take responsibility for the transfer of powers,” he said. “The capacity to do that has been built over the years. [Manchester City Council chief executive] Howard Bernstein has been part of this effort over a long period time. As have [council leader] Richard Leese and others across the conurbation.” That’s true—Bernstein and Leese have been in their respective positions for almost two decades, and Manchester has benefited enormously from their remarkable longevity—but it rather begs the question of whether the same governance structures should be imposed in places with less settled political cultures.
Lloyd said he was sensitive to the “issue [of] what happens in other parts of the country” and also to the dangers of “postcode lotteries”—of services varying significantly from one area to another as devolution gathers pace. The integration of health and social care in Greater Manchester, which Lloyd says will offer the kind of “human-facing integrated services” that central government is incapable of delivering, and which was an significant plank of the city-region’s agreement with the Treasury, is a case in point. “We don’t want to have a postcode lottery where you step over the border into Lancashire or Cheshire and you’ve got a different NHS than the one you’ve got in Greater Manchester,” he said. Better, Lloyd insisted, to see Manchester as an “exemplar” or pioneer in this and other areas.
If part of Lloyd’s job over the next two years will be to convince leaders of other local authorities of the merits of the elected mayoral model, and the new responsibilities and powers that go with it, he also has to persuade the people of Greater Manchester itself (not to mention members of his own party nationally, including Jeremy Corbyn, who earlier in the summer dismissed the devolution of powers “for their own sake” as “mere tokenism”). In 2012, voters in the City of Manchester rejected proposals for an elected mayor, and there has been some grumbling about the way Lloyd’s appointment to the interim role was nodded through by the ten leaders of the GMCA—Professor Karel Williams of the University of Manchester called the process an “undemocratic stitch-up.” The question, Lloyd said, is whether “the public sees that the ‘Greater Manchesterisation’ of things on their behalf is largely in their interest and do they understand what is being done in their name?”
Lloyd’s colleagues in Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and elsewhere will be watching closely for the answer.