The political landscape of the UK has fundamentally altered in recent weeks.
Not, as many either feared or desired, because Scotland voted for independence but because it rejected it and instead embraced ‘devo max’ – the persuasive principle that areas should be able to tailor their own budgets and policies to their own needs rather than having ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions handed down by Westminster.
The greater freedoms and flexibilities enjoyed by Scotland, and indeed Wales, have spotlighted the anomalous position of major conurbations such as Greater Manchester which have nothing like the same freedoms and flexibilities.
It’s a topic I have addressed before in LGC, but I make no apology for revisiting it now when it is so firmly on the agenda. The genie of English devolution is well and truly out of the bottle and there is a simple reason why we need to address the situation now: the over-centralised Westminster model is bust and it’s more obvious than ever.
Let me elaborate, using Greater Manchester as an illustration. For all the austerity rhetoric that has dominated national conversation in recent years, and for all the spending reductions that local government has experienced, the overall amount of public spending in the conurbation has barely gone down.
Indeed, there is a £5bn deficit between the amount of money raised in taxes by the region and the total amount of public spending. We’re a cost centre when we could and should be a net contributor.
The current position is untenable. Our 2.7 million population is only slightly smaller than that of Wales. Our economy is bigger, contributing £50.9bn a year to the UK compared with Wales’s £47.36bn yet we have considerably less freedom over our funding and spending priorities. Much of the money we do receive, through a muddle of funding streams, comes with conditions attached.
Comparable European cities, the likes of Munich and Barcelona, enjoy far greater autonomy.
Thinktank ResPublica’s recent report into this issue concluded that where Greater Manchester has succeeded, and our economy has been growing, this is more despite the current arrangements than because of them.
But we believe that with increased freedom and flexibility we could do so much more.
Crucially, we believe that the ability to scale up our work to reduce dependency – for example the successes we’ve had in turning around troubled families – will deliver a reduction in public spending achieved by investing in positive interventions rather than crude cuts.
Given the opportunity to set local priorities, we also believe we could create better conditions for economic growth to help the area’s residents reach their full potential in accessing the jobs and wealth created.
To give but a small example, more direct influence over our skills budget would help us to create a workforce with the skills required to match the jobs we knew were being created in the area rather than responding to ill-fitting national priorities.
Of course, these arguments apply equally to many other great cities – and not just in England, because Glasgow and Cardiff will tell you that while their countries may have devolution they are still highly centralised.
A new settlement with the government is urgently needed so we can begin to invest in success rather than count the cost of failure. This would inevitably have to be an incremental process rather than an overnight one, but that’s all the more reason why the conversation needs to start happening now.
Moving the devolution agenda forwards at the pace of the slowest and least prepared place is not acceptable. If you accept the logic of bespoke arrangements, then you have to accept that the places most ready to demonstrate the benefits – and I would contend that Greater Manchester, where in recent years the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has built on a long track record of co-operation, is in just such a position – should be enabled to do so as soon as possible.
Nor should the mapping out of the arrangements for devo-max in Scotland be used as an excuse for kicking this issue into the long grass.
This isn’t an issue that is going to go away. The prime minister has acknowledged that England’s great cities need devolution too but now is the time for actions to match the words. We need all the main political parties to demonstrate their commitment to making devolution work, especially for our great cities.
Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive, Manchester City Council