The emergence of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) to deliver ‘Devo Manc’ builds on a long history of effective cooperation between ten local authorities. Not all English cities and regions share such a history. Has Manchester become the template for English sub-national governance, and if so, should we be worried, ask Kevin Ward and his colleagues Iain Deas, Graham Haughton and Stephen Hincks?
In business there is often a lot to be said for first-mover advantage. You are in at the beginning, setting ground rules and capturing market share, but only if the venture succeeds. While over time the returns might diminish, the benefits can be significant. Think of Hoover and the vacuum cleaner or, more recently, Apple and touch screen devices. For later entrants to the market, it is much harder (although not impossible) to realise returns on their investment.
The same might be said to apply to government reform. This tends to privilege certain groups or territories over others. Think about the now well-documented agenda around the devolution of powers and responsibilities, giving new combined authorities enhanced autonomy over revenue-raising and spending, in return for pursuing growth-oriented policies, embarking on political reforms (notably introducing mayors) and restructuring services. This devolution agenda has seen English cities and regions clambering to meet the criteria set by central government and ensure they are awarded new or enhanced powers, additional resources or increased autonomy over revenue generation.
For areas outside the South East where the consequences of austerity have been most keenly felt, there is particular urgency in trying to identify new sources of funding. Cities and regions are not starting from the same point. Some are better able than others to respond to central government’s agenda.
The example of Greater Manchester illustrates how first-mover advantage can work. The abolition of the Greater Manchester Council (GMC) in March 1986 saw the emergence of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA). Though lacking statutory status, AGMA nevertheless ensured a degree of coordination across the ten local authorities in respect of key strategic issues, like infrastructure and economic development, which required the different areas of Greater Manchester to work together. From the mid-2000s, AGMA also began to play an ever more prominent political role, providing collective lobbying capacity on behalf of the ten districts and developing the case to central government that cities needed to be empowered in order to help fuel national as well as local economic growth.
AGMA presented this case in a number of ways. Establishing its own think tank – New Economy – was a political masterstroke. So too was the decision to commission the Manchester Independent Economic Review (MIER) in order to provide an evidence base in support of the case for a city-regional authority with greater decision-making discretion. Alongside the city-region’s own lobbying, the Manchester-based Core Cities group articulated the collective case of the largest cities outside London to be granted further powers and resources in the name of local and national economic competitiveness.
The effectiveness of these lobbying efforts is clear. In 2009 Greater Manchester and Leeds were designated as pilots for new statutory city-regional authority status. The Greater Manchester city-region garnered considerable attention, and in 2011 – despite a change of government – the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) came into being. Subsequent efforts in 2014 and 2015 have seen the GMCA broker devolution deals with central government across a range of areas of policy, from heath care to policing.
While Greater Manchester has benefited from first-mover advantage, other cities have looked on with a degree of anxiety and occasional envy. Some have expressed concern that Greater Manchester’s self-proclaimed trailblazer status risks redirecting resources away from urban areas with equally pressing needs and similarly untapped potential. Some have demanded they too are able to benefit from devolved powers and responsibilities on a similar scale. Even the use of the term Devo Manc as a shorthand for a more general devolution agenda irked some political leaders.
Over the course of 2015 and 2016, other territories – cities, counties, towns – have taken the opportunity to form combined authorities. An interesting political and institutional landscape has emerged as a result. We have seen proposals for combined authorities emerge in a diverse range of areas, from rural Cornwall to the West Midlands. We have also seen multiple competing bids for combined authority status, notably in Yorkshire.
Crucial to the combined authority model is that it is based on individual deals between central government and self-selecting groups of local authorities. However, the process of producing each proposal has involved regular liaison between central and local government. The consequence has been that while each combined authority is unique in terms of its particular geography, there are also considerable similarities in terms of strategic foci (e.g. infrastructure, skills, transport etc.) and governance structures.
Despite all the talk about devolution, this remains a process of political and institutional change in which central government oversight looms large. In the context of a centralised state, it is possible to argue that ‘Devo-Manc’ has emerged as a de facto template against which other applications for devolved powers are assessed by central government.
Yet there are question marks about whether the Greater Manchester model is an appropriate one, given the diversity of social, economic and political circumstances evident across the range of areas seeking devolution deals and bidding for combined authority status. Although Greater Manchester has been successful in positioning itself as a pioneer of successful, modern city-regional governance, the commitment to devolution means it is not inconceivable that rival models could emerge based on proposals from other areas.
- These issues are explored in a special Devolution issue of the journal Representation, which brings together expert analysis from academics and practitioners in the field. Subjects explored range from the role of the Mayor to transport, and from housing to health, as well as the complexity of relationships within the new Greater Manchester health and social care structures.