Commentary a vision for devolution that challenges George Osborne
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The single image that has given local government the most hope in recent years is also among its most shameful.
A new era of power being transferred from the centre to the regions for so long neglected by Whitehall was heralded by George Osborne signing Greater Manchester’s devolution deal in 2014 with its 10 council leaders and then police and crime commissioner.
All 12 people in the picture are men.
White men in suits, the overwhelming majority of them middle-aged.
Devolution was taking place on the chancellor’s own terms. There has been a focus on improving infrastructure to drive growth and connectivity, construction (especially of gleaming edifices) and of blue chip trade missions to Shanghai and Bangalore. Sporting a high-vis jacket Mr Osborne was often seen touring factories and building sites; he was rarely seen meeting those who had not benefited from a rapidly changing economy.
This is not to say that there is any shortage of support in local government for much of this. The Greater Manchester project has always been clear about its commitment to inclusive growth, even if government has not been as forthcoming in devolving the powers and budgets that would help make this possible.
However, the perception has been that the Osborne vision stops drastically short of recognising the full needs of local populations. New skyscrapers don’t necessarily equate to jobs and indeed hope for those who need it most. And, although LGC will leave it for others to suggest Freudian connotations, they can be construed as a very masculine vision. Women – not a minority, of course, but 51% of the population – were not getting much of a look in.
It was when the Northern Powerhouse conference was held in Manchester in February, with all 15 speakers highlighted on a press release for the event being male, that the backlash truly started. At the centre of the fight back was Doncaster MBC chief executive Jo Miller and it was her anger that was one of the major contributing factors towards the People’s Powerhouse conference being staged in the South Yorkshire town on Wednesday. (Ironically it was delayed after a woman who actually does hold power called an election for the original intended conference week.)
Ms Miller told the event: “I was driven bonkers when women were excluded from other events. If you’re black or of a different religion, you’re also excluded. If we change access to the conversation, you get better delivery.
“Today is about not accepting the status quo. You and I, and everyone in this room, can change the conversation.”
Lord Adebowale (Crossbench), the black Wakefield-born chief executive of the mental health and substance misuse social enterprise Turning Point, gave the country’s most prestigious transport scheme as one example of the sort of assumption made by Mr Osborne.
“I’m not anti-HS2. The presumption is that everyone in the north wants to hop down to London. But it should be about building an economy here,” Lord Adebowale said. “The debate about devolution has been based on devolution being primarily economic. We need to wake up to the social point of it.”
Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, was more extreme in his language, describing himself as “totally agnostic about growth”, unless its profits were shared fairly. “Over the past 20 years it’s been captured by a very small elite of institutional investors who piss off with it to the British Virgin Islands.”
While many may agree with such sentiments, for a local government and third sector that have to deal with realpolitik, they do not necessarily add up to an instant programme for change.
The challenge for the People’s Powerhouse is to prove it amounts to more than fluffiness: how can the people who have not benefited from economic change be empowered by devolution?
Andy Burnham (Lab), Greater Manchester CA’s new mayor, offered four practical principles which he believed could make an impact on this question:
- a balanced representation of people in making decisions. This includes a new rule brought in by the combined authority last month that each borough brings along both a male and a female representative to decision-making meetings;
- opening the doors of where power is and letting the people in. He named parents of children of autism and younger people as two groups previously denied access to policy makers that he had already reached out to;
- ensuring such groups’ participation was more than lip service; they must be given specific tasks and responsibilities;
- stop concentrating on buildings: regeneration occurs through people and communities instead. “We have an approach to planning that’s too developer led,” he said. “Let’s put people in charge.”
The event’s final speaker was Dame Louise Casey in her last public outing as a Department for Communities & Local Government civil servant.
She insisted the Grenfell Tower tragedy had shown a “dehumanised” public sector which had been unable to respond to people’s needs.
“This really is a ‘seize the moment’ moment,” Dame Louise said. “Seize the power of love and the power of kindness. I believe in the hope that humanity brings and I believe in service for others.”
Dame Louise is right. It is not just a challenge for the organisers and attendees of the People’s Powerhouse or the third sector, but everyone in the north of England and beyond. How can I shape my own destiny? How can I help others to shape their destiny and reach their full potential?
This debate will run; the People’s Powerhouse is only the start of it.