Opposition to a mayoral model for Manchester overlooks a decade of innovation and collaboration that has delivered economic and social benefits for the region, says Prof Francesca Gains.
Much has been made of backroom deals between the Chancellor George Osborne and Manchester City Council’s chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein to deliver the most significant devolutionary settlement of Whitehall budgets in England.
The price of the deal is an elected mayor, who from 2017, will oversee significant sums of devolved spending, answerable to a cabinet made up of the ten council leaders of the Greater Manchester authorities.
For some attending a cities@manchester debate earlier this week, the imposition of an elected mayor is seen as an unwelcome and undemocratic step.
But this view underplays the way in which this deal represents the culmination of over ten years of hard work and commitment by all the region’s elected leaders (and their officers) to collaborate and innovate to deliver economic and social goals in the region. Greater Manchester led the way in establishing the first combined authority and making it work, despite the political and organisational frictions this entailed.
In the wake of the Scottish referendum, as all parties face up to the reality that the devolutionary genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and with a powerful economic case being made by the City Growth Commission and others, the ‘DevoManc’ deal is an idea whose time has come.
And research examining the first city mayors suggests there are reasons why an elected mayor is the right model for the new settlement. The visibility of a mayor means the public knows who to hold to account for the spending decisions now to be made in and across the region. Being directly elected will keep the mayor responsive to all communities.
As the mayor of New York Bill de Blasio says, ‘every neighbourhood gets a fair shot’. Being directly elected incentivises mayors to find ways of engaging with the public which can encourage innovation and extend policy consultation in between elections. Their mandate frees up mayors from party management, enabling time to devote to advocacy and lobbying for the area.
All systems have strengths and weaknesses, and whilst the executive arrangements proposed for the Greater Manchester mayoral model are strong in that veto powers are given to the 10 leaders, there are other parts of the design which now need to be developed to get the right checks and balances.
Vivien Lowndes and I argue it will be essential that the Mayor learns from the good practices of (some) Police and Crime Commissioners and avoids some weaknesses in opening up transparency of decision making – allowing public questions and providing information about the timing and outcomes of decisions.
Effective scrutiny of the increasingly complex commissioning environment of public services will be important to get right. Some have advocated establishing local public accounts committees of non-executive councillors in localities perhaps supported by co-opted expertise and informed by citizen panels.
There are other opportunities to draw in the expertise and local knowledge of local non-executive councillors across all authorities to work with their communities in community planning to feed into the development of the Mayor’s spatial plan.
It will also be key to get equality and diversity considerations right too. There is only one female council leader in Greater Manchester. The Mayoral cabinet could look very ‘male and pale’ compared to Westminster and Holyrood. The composition of the leadership of the ten authorities is unlikely to change quickly so how can the new Mayor ensure the inclusion of women and BME voices around the cabinet table?
A commitment to conducting full equality impact assessments of spending policies will be essential to ensure that policies are responsive not just to the geography of the region but to the diversity of the communities served.
So in the making the Greater Manchester mayor attention needs to be paid to making the democratic case alongside the economic and social case. It is essential to engage the public in this devolutionary experiment. There are tremendous opportunities to have a conversation with the communities, local councillors and stakeholders in how to be creative and bold in designing the checks and balances. The next stages will require that spirit of co-operation and innovation that the region has long demonstrated.