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Government / Local politics

Do the people of Manchester really want devolution?

Woven into the floor tiles of Manchester Town Hall is an unusual motif. Where other major European cities typically chose something fierce or awe-inspiring like a lion or a bear, strewn around the centre of government for England’s second city you’ll find a patchwork of small, yellow honey bees.

The explanation for this peculiar mascot choice goes back to the industrial revolution. In the 1720s, Daniel Defoe described Manchester as the “greatest mere village in England”; 150 years later, it was an economic powerhouse. Manchester’s work ethic and independent spirit became part of its founding myths, the city a symbol of northern economic power and influence.

And now, after decades of being largely run from London, Mancunians are poised to take some of that power back.

The narrow result of the Scottish independence referendum shook a political class which had been expecting an easy ride. Through two years of effective campaigning, Alex Salmond and the SNP turned the discontent and frustration at Westminster’s perceived neglect into a potent political force.

But once the devolution genie was out of the bottle, the call for greater power began spreading southwards. In September, think tank ResPublica launched its “Devo Max, Devo Manc” report, which argued that a city with a population as larger than Northern Ireland, and an economy bigger than Wales, was long past due the same rights and responsibilities held by those countries’ governments. The think tank called for greater fiscal autonomy, including powers to raise its own taxation, as well as powers to control its own budget, services and infrastructure projects.

Now it seems this argument has been won, at least in part. Today chancellor George Osborne confirmed control over policies such as transport, housing and social care is to be devolved to Greater Manchester’s government; so are the budgets that pay for them. But the city won’t receive control over its own tax affairs. Most controversially, in exchange for this new control over its destiny, Greater Manchester will be forced to elect its own mayor. This comes despite the fact that the population of Manchester city (a much smaller area) rejected the idea in a referendum in 2012.

Speaking before this announcement, ResPublica’s founder and the author of the report, Philip Blond, said his proposals represented “the most fundamental reform of the British state we’ve seen really since its inception”. He argued that the way to deal with poverty in some of Britain’s regions is through a “whole person” approach to welfare.

That is much easier to achieve through local decision making. At present, one Whitehall department dictates mental health spending, while another decides the skills budget. Nobody looks at an area’s needs as a whole. “The central state can’t fulfil all the things people need,” Blond says. “What human beings need is a holistic approach: they need all the factors that are preventing them from progressing looked at in the round. The fact is, the state can’t do it.”

Busy bees: the floor of Manchester Town Hall. Image: Willposh on Flickr, re-used under creative commons.

At the heart of the growing discontent of the regions far from London lie questions of economics, and the widening gulf between living standards and wages in different parts of the country. Manchester has an economy which adds roughly £50.9bn to the UK economy every year: more than both Wales (£47.3bn) and Northern Ireland (£29.4bn). But Manchester still relies on public spending of £22.9bn, and generates tax revenues of only £17.7bn.

Lucy Powell MP won the Manchester Central by-election in November 2012, on a turnout of just 18 per cent. Since then, she’s been one of the loudest voices calling for greater powers to go to Manchester region.

Speaking at the Labour party conference in Manchester, she said she was “embarrassed and horrified” by the result, and that it demonstrated that ordinary people did not feel like they were being listened to. “I made it a mission of mine to talk to disengaged communities about why it is that they don’t vote,” she said. “We’ve learnt a lot from Scotland. People feel Westminster is remote from their lives and largely irrelevant. They also want to see change happening in their communities, and don’t see politics as a vehicle for that change.”

Powell argued that devolution to Britain’s cities should not have stopped in London: Manchester was “chomping at the bit” for more powers.

But even with Westminster’s theoretical support and Mancunians wanting a new deal, it’s not clear that the idea of devolution really resonates with the ordinary person on the street. Mike Riddell, 50, a digital entrepreneur from Warrington, said many in the region were angry with the attitude of Westminster politicians. “I think we as a city region are ready for change and we have been working on different ways for a while now,” he said. “We’ve had austerity pretty bad up here. People are getting fed up.”

But, he adds, “the trouble for people like me is it doesn’t mean anything. It’s jargon. A lot of people across the North West will not have a clue what devo max is or what it looks like. It just isn’t on their radar, so it’s largely a conversation that isn’t being heard.”

But ResPublica’s Philip Blond argues that, while the specific details of the plan may get lost in translation, the broad call for localised power is being heard. “People aren’t stupid, they know how power works and they know they have not benefited from the past 30 years. We could see a mass popular localism – because that’s what people want.”

He’s not alone in this view. Ashley Cowburn, a 23-year-old based in London but originally from Salford argues that, “People might say we don’t care about “devolution” per se: we care about the crisis in living standards, the availability of housing and the deep inequality that exists in British society.”

But, he adds, “devolution could go some way to address these issues. Providing more power to local authorities will put the welfare budget into the hands of the people in Manchester, and out of the hands of the out-of-touch Westminster elite.”

Joel Smith, also 23, who moved to Manchester for university, agrees. He believes people are particularly aware of the “suck” of talent and money down to London. “There’s definitely the perception that power, money, public investment and skilled jobs are being concentrated in the capital at the expense of the north. I think a lot of people here feel frustrated that for almost anything third sector or technical you have to go to London. There just aren’t as many of those kinds of jobs up here.”

Devolution means different things to different people. For the politicians, the academics and the activists, it’s a complicated process of negotiation and political wrangling over administration. For ordinary people, the word itself doesn’t mean much at all – but it’s just possible that a genuine devolution of control might. 
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