The new world of devolution to Manchester

The Government has published two documents, in November 2014 and February 2015, proposing ‘devolution to Greater Manchester’. The November document proposes to devolve some additional transport powers, a housing capital budget, and various business support and skills-related budgets, a statutory spatial strategy, with a promise of closer working on the Work Programme and further education reform. The February document proposes to devolve strategic responsibility for commissioning of NHS and social care services. The 2015 Budget proposes to allow Greater Manchester to retain 100% of business rate growth, if certain targets are met.

A directly-elected mayor will be created for the Greater Manchester area. Most of the devolved powers will be exercised by the mayor together with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). A joint board will be created to lead the local decision-making on health and social care. The mayor will also become the Greater Manchester police and crime commissioner.

These proposals are far-reaching, and they have inspired a range of commentary. As they have been produced over a relatively short timeframe, many details regarding governance, timescales, and accountabilities are not yet available. The changes will be introduced during 2015-16, as details are negotiated between the parties. Three characteristics of the devolution proposals are notable.

Power devolved to many actors

The creation of a new, Greater Manchester-wide directly-elected mayor has been one of the most eye-catching aspects of the proposals. But the mayor will not exercise untrammeled power. S/he will require majority support in the ‘GMCA cabinet’ – the ten leaders of the Manchester boroughs – for many decisions, and unanimous approval of the new spatial strategy. Moreover, the new health and social care arrangements will not be funded by or accountable to the elected mayor. The borough leaders will be partners, with NHS England and the local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), on a ‘Joint Commissioning Board’ for Greater Manchester.

The distribution of power within Greater Manchester will be diffuse, and the elected mayor will have to command support and broker consensus within the GMCA in order to deliver on the policy areas that are to be devolved. The mayor’s profile will be such that s/he will inevitably become associated with any local changes in NHS arrangements. This too will throw pressure on the negotiating talents of the elected mayor, as s/he may be held accountable for things that s/he does not control.

The continued role of central government

The devolution proposals do not imply central government withdrawing from its role in favour of ‘autonomy’ for Greater Manchester. There will continue to be a tight relationship between centre and locality. The changes are to be implemented via moving budgets and programmes, not legal powers. A number of the proposals are for joint working, not local control. NHS England will sit on the Joint Commissioning Board, ensuring that national health priorities continue to be taken into account. Moreover, the November and February documents discuss in some detail the type of change that central government expects the devolution of power to achieve. Indeed, the February document (page 4) presents the Manchester proposals as one of a number of new initiatives for effective delivery under NHS England’s five-year plan. Sir Simon Jenkins describes the approach as “devolving power within budgets, not power over budgets”.[1]

There is no mechanism within the new system for the resolution of serious disputes between the government and Greater Manchester, or within Greater Manchester. It relies on what might be called “councillor’s dilemma”, where the price of failing to agree is no real devolution of power for the partners involved.

Implications for local government

There is no certainty whether the Manchester proposals are a foretaste of further substantial change. The deal has generated a rash of demands from other areas for similar deals. But the initiative, whilst radical, continues the Government’s established approach of bilateral deals with city-based areas, following in the footsteps of City Deals and the Regional Growth Fund. In particular, the powers on offer, and the governance structures proposed, are quite distinct from those exercised by the Mayor of London. The Manchester deal does not have any definite implications for local government in general.

Although the elected mayor will not have the kind of free hand enjoyed by the Mayor of London, it is clear that their existence is critical for the making of the devolution proposals. It also seems likely, if not certain, that other local areas wanting further devolution will have to establish a combined authority. At the time of writing four other combined authorities exist (Liverpool, Sheffield, West Yorkshire, North-East) with three more reputed to be in the pipeline (Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Tees Valley). But LGC research suggests that many other parts of England are not even considering the option. The jury is therefore out on whether the Manchester deal will be replicated across all, or even many, parts of England.

Author: Mark Sandford

[1]     Simon Jenkins, “The secret negotiations to restore Manchester to greatness”, Guardian, 12 February 2015