Greater Manchester’s new governance arrangements will tie the city region’s councils, biggest political egos and political parties together in pursuit of the common good of the wider city.
It is an example of councils coming together to take a brave decision that could help reverse the longstanding culture of centralism that has stifled our nation.
There is some irony that the momentous news about Manchester’s new path was announced on the same day as Norman Baker’s resignation from the Home Office gave an indication of a paralysis at the heart of the coalition. He claimed that being a Liberal Democrat working in the department was like “walking through mud”.
Responsibility falls on the leaders of Manchester’s authorities, their officials and their future mayor to ensure they continue their enlightened spirit of working together so improving the city does not become like walking through mud. The tribalism evident in the Home Office – where Mr Baker fell out with a home secretary who was never going to be his ideological bedfellow – is a pitfall that must be avoided in Greater Manchester.
At present the city has eight Labour council leaders, one Conservative and a Liberal Democrat. These leaders will sit in the combined authority’s cabinet. To add to this mix there will be a mayor whose plans for transport, planning, housing and policing can be rejected if two-thirds of his or her cabinet disagree. The whole cabinet must approve the statutory spatial framework.
Manchester’s mayor will lack the freedom to manoeuvre Boris Johnson holds in London. It also remains unclear exactly what central funds will be devolved to their control. But the prize within their grasp is significant.
At last there will be an ability to co-ordinate services for a population of 2.7 million and an individual with the clout to introduce Oyster cards or ensure the police are held accountable (in a way the police and crime commissioners, largely shunned by the public in elections, have failed to do).
More than that, a new culture of democratic legitimacy and leadership has been signalled, in place of the secrecy of Whitehall.
All eyes will be on the city as it strives to complete the transition from combined authority to “powerhouse”. While one hopes areas such as West Yorkshire, which have also been pacesetters in making cases for devolution, will not wait long to win major powers, it is likely that failure in Greater Manchester could hold back other urban areas.
Birmingham, which has long vied with Manchester for the title of England’s second city but has so far faced difficulties in the creation of a West Midlands combined authority, could well find its fate depending on that of Greater Manchester.
It may well be that the revival of Greater Manchester is this government’s greatest devolutionary legacy (indeed, little else competes for that title). But the real credit lies with the city’s 10 authorities. If they continue to work together, they have the power to rejuvenate local democracy far beyond Manchester’s boundaries.