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Devolution, not revolution


By Luca Difato

The Combined Authorities of Greater Manchester and West Midlands recently agreed a deal with the UK government that signifies a deeper level of devolution for the regions.

Under the “Trailblazer” deal, the current administrative devolution arrangements will be expanded to usher in an era of fiscal devolution with consolidated, long-term budgets for the GMCA and WMCA, among other benefits.

I was fortunate to attend an excellent event hosted by Centre for Cities where the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, spoke in-depth about the journey leading up to this deal, as well as the benefits that the city region can expect to see in the future. 

This arrangement does not just represent a different form of governance, but rather a different form of thinking. Whitehall may be starting to realise that it is ok to trust local government, and recognise that there are people closer to the ground in these regions that better understand how to spend the money to support its citizens. This style of thinking will undoubtedly be less wasteful, as the amount of reshuffles and resignations in the past few years has demonstrated just how quickly departmental momentum can be lost when the minister assuming responsibility for a project decides they hate everything their predecessor has done. With a secure and dedicated metro mayor, with growing responsibilities and powers, there is no such waste and the single settlement arrangement that will increase autonomy and empower local decision making, will speed up that momentum massively. 

In Greater Manchester, there is plenty of bottom-up delivery that can represent some really exciting opportunities for the region, with all 10 local authorities now being able to access funding to build social housing, as opposed to the 5 pre-Trailblazer. In addition to this, Mayor Burnham spoke enthusiastically about an integrated technical education system that will create new pathways for young people in Greater Manchester, that will link them to high quality jobs and raise aspirations for the non-university route. This isn’t just about catching up to London, it’s about creating a new national template and giving London-centric thinking a run for its money. 

Greater Manchester can also expect its own London-style integrated transport system by the end of the decade, in the Bee Network, which is firmly taking shape. With all this expected growth and progress, Manchester will become an even more attractive place for investment. This increased devolution may be the final piece of the jigsaw, but it is certainly not the end of the story. Andy Burnham now wants to see a grand committee in Parliament for the devolved regions, to allow Westminster to see what is actually going on elsewhere which he believes will mean that the level of funding will match the attitude shift that is currently taking place. 

Burnham now feels more accountable than he ever did as an MP, and is relishing the practical and pragmatic space that exists in mayoral elections – with less emphasis on attack and more on what can be achieved. Local government is the most functional part of British politics after all. While admitting that there is a lingering fear that a general election could halt devolution progress in the UK, Burnham remains confident in this process and ended with the notion that Stockport can become the new Berlin, and that younger people will begin to warm to opportunities outside of London

The UK’s association with devolution began with John Smith piloting the Scottish devolution proposals through the Commons 30 years ago, and there is really no limit to where it could take us next now that these two regions have been given the chance to blaze a trail for the rest of the country to follow.