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Government / Local politics

Manchester shows why English devolution should be to city regions

There was a time when everything that mattered in political economy was happening in Manchester. All at once. In the early years of the 1840s, the Anti-Corn Law League, led out of the Free Trade Hall, Manchester by Richard Cobden and John Bright, was pressing the Prime Minister, Robert Peel of Bury, to lift tariffs on corn, known by the working class who suffered the cost, as “the bread tax”.

At this very moment, when the argument for free trade was on the verge of success, half a mile away two studious young Germans were skating out a different course which would in time convulse half the world. In the library at Chetham’s music school a Manchester mill owner called Friedrich Engels and his visiting friend Karl Marx were working on a manuscript that would be published in 1848 under the portentous title of The Communist Manifesto.

It is little wonder that Disraeli had described Manchester as “the philosophical capital of the world”, although it was Cobden and Bright who prevailed rather than Marx and Engels. Manchester has always owed more to mercantilism than Marxism.

That is still true today now that Cobden and Bright stand guard in stone in Albert Square outside the magnificent town hall, in which one of the great urban revivals was, in part, created. Manchester of the 1980s was, like many provincial towns reliant on manufacturing industry, a rather dispirited place. There was a lot to like about it and, as resident, I loved it – but there was no question that Manchester’s sense of itself was defined too much by economic failure. In the 1840s the newspapers had been full of anguished pieces about the North-South divide in which the North had all the money and the jobs. In the 1980s the articles were back but this time the other way round. Even the Manchester Guardian had moved to fancy London.

Good governance in part helped Manchester to thrive again; but only in part. There were three other elements in the revival of Manchester which owe a lot to the animal spirits of the city’s culture. The first was that private enterprise was unleashed. It is to the credit of the politicians and officials, notably Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein, who understood Manchester could flourish only if it became more prosperous.

The second element was the spirit of the people themselves. Manchester has a culture which survived, and partly alleviated, industrial decline. These days it is good business. Cultural industries in the Manchester region contribute £135.9m in gross value added each year and employ more than 4,000 people. In the North West, like everywhere else, every pound invested in culture pays back £5.

The third element was a welcome absence of partisan political point-scoring. In a deal negotiated by the Conservative chancellor George Osborne with a Labour council, Greater Manchester now has a suite of new powers, notably over the health and social care budget, which will fall to a new mayor.

These partnerships, between public and private enterprise and between local government and citizens, are the ingredients of a flourishing city. Manchester over the last decade has been a case study in why it matters to shift power to the level of the city.

It is important to note that the city level is the correct point for power to land. Curious as it was for a party so rooted in the north of England, Labour came to power in 1997 with no real understanding of the various cultural identities that make up the north. There is a good deal of residual affection for the old counties. My mother and all her friends never really accepted the 1974 local government reorganisation which took her town from Lancashire into Greater Manchester. But the allegiance was held to the county, not to a nebulous thing called a region.


The idea of a region is an economic unit which might make sense in consideration of transport policy and the deathless prose of spatial awareness plans – but it had no connection to how people thought of themselves. It was no surprise that when regional assemblies were put to a vote hardly anyone cared and most of those who did were opposed.

The city is a much better focus of identity because even people who are proudly from Bury, Bolton, Oldham or Rochdale feel a sense of pride in a fine metropolis within easy travelling distance. There is still a task to ensure that the prosperity generated in Manchester spreads out into the towns on its perimeter, but that can be done.

The mayor will be subject to the usual petty local rivalries as leaders used to their own fiefdoms suddenly find a big new player but they need to get over themselves and co-operate. Durkheim once said that not everything contractual is in the contract, and that is the case with the new mayoral powers. The scope of the powers available will rather depend on how effectively they are wielded. Rather than obstruct and declare a kind of political independence from Manchester, the mill towns of former Lancashire would be well-advised to pitch in.

They may well soon find the need for safety in numbers. The cuts to local government are about to bite. Since 2010 national government has been curiously Janus-faced about local government. One face presents a salutary commitment to the devolution of power. There is a case that the coalition between 2010 and 2015 sought to devolve more power than any of its predecessors.

At the same time, the government presented a hard face when it came to the financial settlement. The best local authorities – Bury and Oldham have been imaginative – have responded by thinking rather than complaining, but the capacity for obvious reforms is starting to run into the reality that you cannot keep statutory services running without more money. On that at least, the studious young men in the library at Chetham’s were right.

Philip Collins is chief leader writer and columnist at The Times. This article appears in an essay collection ‘Neo-localism – rediscovering the nation’ published this week by the think-tank Localis.

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