Activists plan to target the wards of the 10 leaders of Greater Manchester councils at next May’s elections to press their case for a referendum on the region’s devolution deal, MPs have heard.
Members of the Greater Manchester Referendum Campaign for Democratic Devolution are arguing that the 17 indicators chosen to chart the deal’s success ignore social and democratic issues and that public consent has not been sought for the choice of devolved powers or the imposition of an elected mayor.
The issue has wider significance as the region is serving as a model for devolution deals elsewhere, they argue.
At a special session of the Commons’ communities and local government committee held in Manchester on Monday referendum campaign spokesman David Fernandez-Arias told MPs that activist groups supported devolution but condemned the deal for being devised behind closed doors.
He said: “Our common aim is surely informed and engaged citizens and civic society, working together with trusted public servants.
“However these back-room deals have been described as ‘a revolution in government’ by George Osborne, and ‘potentially the greatest act of devolution in the history of the NHS since 1948’ by [NHS England chief executive] Simon Stevens, and yet we’ve had no public awareness, no public consultation, no democratic engagement, no scrutiny and no impact assessment.”
Democratic rights were being “treated as an irrelevance, or an afterthought, or an inconvenience, or an obstacle to their fast-tracked and imposed plans” by proponents of the devolution deal, he added.
Groups involved in the campaign include 38 Degrees, Unlock Democracy and the Greater Manchester Council of Trade Unions.
The latter’s secretary Stefan Cholewka told LGC: “The signs from canvassing are that 96% of people even in council leaders’ own wards do not know what is happening with devolution.
“We will target leaders’ wards in elections just by canvassing and publishing results of what people think.
“There are 17 priorities and none concern improving democratic participation by the public.”
Unlock Democracy spokesman Peter Davidson said: “There is a glaring imbalance in the priorities. It’s all about business and growth, and that’s fine, but where is there anything about building more social housing or tackling housing costs. Where are the checks and balances?”
Leaders contacted by LGC defended the deal as the best available given the government’s attachment to mayors and the extent of its devolutionary ambition.
Tameside MBC leader Kieran Quinn (Lab) said: “If we had been able to I’m sure we would have consulted on this and possibly held a referendum, but the government has made it clear that is not going to happen.
“This is the deal we’ve got and the leaders are realists and pragmatists. Would we have done thing differently left to ourselves? Probably yes, but I’d rather have this deal than continue to be told what to do by a mandarin in Whitehall.”
Stockport MBC leader Sue Derbyshire (Lib Dem) said: “We are not proposing any removal of powers from local councils and Greater Manchester Combined Authority is largely a body to negotiate for powers currently exercised in Westminster to be decentralised.
“If in time there really is devolution, rather than decentralisation, that will need to be fully consulted on possibly by referendum.
“However that is not what is happening and it is difficult to formulate what a question for a referendum should be.”
The DCLG said it felt local leaders had a mandate to make decisions for their areas and any opposition to them could be expressed through the ballot box.
Greater Manchester’s interim mayor Tony Lloyd (Lab) told LGC: “We’ve got some way to go yet in explaining to the public how devolution will make a positive difference to people’s lives. But when people ask me about these new powers it is always in the context of what it means for their health services, their buses, their jobs, their children, their future and so on.”
He said that with no-one advocating the resurrection of Greater Manchester County Council, which was abolished in 1986, “there really has to be a mayoral system along the lines of the London model - albeit one which is better as it is more closely aligned to the local authorities in our area” to give democratic accountability.
There would be a mayoral election in 2017 and “between now and then the focus has to be on getting across the message around how we are bringing powers from the dusty corridors of Whitehall to where they belong - into the hands of the people of Greater Manchester”.