How significant will the elected mayoral role be for Greater Manchester – asks Iain Deas – and who will be that mayor?
Simon Jenkins recently treated readers of the Guardian to an account of the rebuilding of city-regional governance in Greater Manchester. The story was of heroic struggle by Manchester’s civic leaders, guided by the enlightened leadership of Chancellor George Osborne, in overcoming bureaucratic inertia and parochial self-interest to rekindle the sense of bold, farsighted municipal leadership for which the city had once been famed.
Jenkins’s otherwise forgettable paean to the wisdom of local and national political leaders was instructive in highlighting the difficulties in brokering agreement about the establishment of an elected mayor for Greater Manchester. Announced in November 2014, the decision formed part of a wider programme of devolution to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). Increased local discretion over housing, planning, policing, skills training and transport continued a process of ‘DevoManc’ that began – modestly and somewhat hesitantly – almost immediately after the abolition of Greater Manchester County in 1986. The process has since gathered momentum, to the extent that the city-region’s responsibilities now begin to rival those enjoyed by London and cities overseas.
The advent of a city-regional mayor is surprising. Amongst the many models mooted for the city-region prior to the 2011 inception of the GMCA, the option of a powerful city-region mayor generated most disquiet. Local policy elites argued that a Greater Manchester mayoralty risked disrupting carefully honed but fragile institutional and personal relationships carved over a period of two decades and more.
Greater Manchester has been extolled for its efforts to build city-regional institutions, the argument runs, because the focus has been on forging consensus around a narrow range of issues connected to economic development, eschewing the broadly based agenda that would accompany a city-region mayor. As a result, Greater Manchester has avoided the internecine wrangling evident in England’s other major city-regions.
There is merit in this reasoning – to a point. Greater Manchester’s governance has been unapologetically technocratic. The operation of politics largely beyond the electorate’s gaze has helped avoid the potential chaos that could accompany ten local authorities and numerous competing parochial and sectoral interests. Greater Manchester’s political scene has been characterised by an absence of rancour, with most arguments confined to political-officer interaction and largely devoid of ideologically driven debate.
Conflict surfaced on the few occasions the city-region opened debate to the wider electorate. The referendum in 2008 – which saw nearly 80% of voters reject proposals for a London-style congestion charge for Greater Manchester – illustrated how carefully nurtured consensus could rapidly disintegrate when the need for local electoral sanction allows dormant intergovernmental rivalries to resurface.
The traumas associated with Greater Manchester’s occasional dalliances with local democratic engagement explain the preference of the city-region’s leaders for what they argue is a more streamlined mode of governance. The return of old-style metropolitan government, and the accompanying bureaucratic baggage of committees and elections, would restrict the ability to get things done, they suggest. But this standpoint brings costs. The previous rejection of a mayoral model means that Greater Manchester is lacking the popular visibility and buy-in evident in London. Greater Manchester is missing an individual with the clout derived from electoral legitimacy and the authority to negotiate with central government on a more equal footing. Greater Manchester lacks a Boris or a Ken.
The absence of a charismatic city-region mayor may have helped secure consensus amongst political elites. The prospect of a Mancunian figurehead drawn from outside the world of metropolitan governance has provoked alarm within the city-region’s leadership. As elsewhere in England, proposals for a mayor for the city were rejected decisively by electors in 2012. But government support for a mayoral model is longstanding, predating the current administration. Pointing towards the experience of cities in North America and elsewhere in Europe, the argument has been that city(-region) mayors can help reconnect politicians to a disenchanted electorate, while imbuing urban areas with the kind of dynamic, visionary leadership felt to be lacking in the staid world of local government.
Greater Manchester’s leaders have accepted the need for more strategic leadership, but until now argued that existing structures – while low key and only indirectly accountable to citizens – are effective. The apparent volte face in accepting the mayoral model probably reflects the pragmatism that has long characterised the city-region’s dealings with central government. Accommodation with Whitehall reflects a desire to accede to the centre’s wishes, in return for devolution of further power and responsibility in the future. In a context of austerity politics, local political leaders had little choice than to accept the mayoral model and assume additional discretionary powers and increased resources as partial compensation for wider public expenditure cuts.
It is tempting to speculate on the identity of the first city-region mayor. It may seem improbable to envisage a GMCA led by erstwhile Madchester luminary Bez, the former Happy Mondays appendage now reinvented as an anti-fracking activist. But voter disquiet means the election of a populist, non-establishment figure is not implausible. The prospect of an independent non-aligned mayor would certainly inject a discordant note into the harmonious world of metropolitan governance.
As it is, the good and great of Greater Manchester are probably relaxed about arrangements for an interim appointee in 2015, prior to an election for mayor two years later. The city-region’s leaders will hope for an insider nominee whose appointment can be ratified by a grateful electorate. This might be an optimistic – or naive – scenario. Manchester’s metropolitan politics might be about to get interesting.
Iain Deas will be sharing his ideas tomorrow as part of the panel for the cities@manchester Urban Forum, Is an elected mayor for Manchester a good thing? – Tuesday 24 February, 6pm, Manchester. For further details and to register a free ticket see Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/is-an-elected-mayor-for-manchester-a-good-thing-tickets-15352034348
- The Urban blog stream is generated in conjunction with cities@manchester.