Devolutionary fever is gripping the UK. After the failure (or triumph, depending on your perspective) of the Scottish Referendum, the conversation about centralized power is far from over, and Manchester seems to be the new focus of Britain’s devolutionary zeal. The prospect of getting our very own Boris Johnson is intensely exciting, but only if our mayor has nothing in common with bumbling Boris.
As part of George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ plans, announced in a speech in June, Manchester will be awarded a democratically elected mayor and devolutionary powers worth £1bn. The initiative, named ‘Devo Manc’ will see the post of police and crime commissioner for the Greater Manchester police scrapped and the elected mayor taking over this role.
The devolved powers that Manchester will enjoy include transport, and an Oyster-style card will be introduced for travelling across the city. With a population of 2.55 million people and as home to the busiest bus route in Europe, it’s only surprising that Manchester hasn’t already got a smart ticketing system that can be used across public transport. The GMCA will have more control over planning and policing, and complete control of the health and social care budget. Osborne has also promised to give Manchester a new housing investment fund of over £300m and a budget of £100m to help 50,000 people get back into work. As kind as it is for the Chancellor to give us £300m for housing, he might want to look at the insane crisis happening in the capital and build some homes that non-millionaires can afford to live in.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is keen to see full devolution for the £22bn of public spending in the city, an aspiration that doesn’t seem unreasonable when you consider that Manchester has previously led the way in terms of showing how local authorities can work together. In 1986, 10 councils in Greater Manchester (Bolton, Wigan, Bury, Oldham, Manchester, Trafford, Tameside, Salford, Rochdale and Stockport) banded together to form the Association of Greater Manchester (this later turned into the GMCA).
Although the ‘Devo Manc’ plans don’t include the £1bn spent across Greater Manchester on education, they theoretically mean that the new mayor will have more power than the Mayor of London. They will be directly accountable to the public after a 2017 election, although a temporary mayor will be appointed in January of next year to control the GMCA before the election takes place. Hopefully, the influx of cash and the new confidence given to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority will see the north-south pay gap dwindle, as the last figures from 2010 showed that the gross disposable household income per head was £13,026 in Greater Manchester, while London enjoyed disposable income of £19,038.
Public opinion on Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ push is divided. I took to the streets to ask Manchester residents what they thought about the prospect of getting a shiny new Mayor. Helen, a journalist, said that “it makes sense of have an accountable representative. Manchester having a mayor was always part of the deal since his first ‘Northern Powerhouse’ speech in June. Osborne has been clear that he won’t relinquish the power and money until there is an elected figurehead.”
Anthony, a company director, said he’d like to see a mayor of Manchester, because “there are plenty of issues that need to be addressed, including litter, traffic, road works, and ugly tower blocks being built that will look like council tenements in a few years”. He added that he’d like to have a say in these matters. Matt, who manages a bar, felt that substantial changes had to be made in order for the initiative to be worthwhile. He said “if one person wants to take the responsibility to actually make transport and welfare better, then it’s a good idea. I will want to see big changes as a result though.”
Others were less positive about the plans. Alex, who works in media production, said “I have no real opinion. So they may or may not bring in some decrepit, old freemason to rinse money out of the local economy so he can buy another Bentley. It wouldn’t surprise me.” Mark, a postal worker, felt that the powers of the new mayor might be too far reaching. “I don’t think it’s a good idea because 10 councils shouldn’t be controlled by one person.” There are legitimate concerns about a single mayor representing a city as diverse as Manchester, but if London can do it, so can we.
The north of England has too long been ignored and discounted by the gang in Westminster. In July last year, the Tory peer Lord Howell of Guildford remarked that fracking should be carried out in ‘desolate’ areas of the north east, demonstrating his disdain for the bits of Britain that aren’t the south or London. Media coverage in the UK focuses on London at the expense of all other regions, and The Guardian’s Manchester office boasts just one reporter with the responsibility for covering the entirety of England’s midlands and north. London is where the largest businesses are gathered, where the arts and culture flourish and are funded, and where the majority of the national press holds court. The bulk of my university peers moved to London after graduation, drawn by the employment opportunities and the sense that London is where power and success are centralized.
Dare I say it? I’m bored of London. I’m tired of reading about it and hearing about it and being told that to make good in any field, I need to move into a room smaller than Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs, in a flat where my rent is twice as high as in my current Manchester residence. Enough of this London-centric bias. Manchester deserves this investment and the chance to take control of its spending and, ultimately, its direction.
Jamie, a furniture buyer, raised an interesting point about the Chancellor’s motives. He said “I’m all for devolution of power and an elected councillor controlling the region’s money, but I’m always suspicious when a Conservative government offers a northern city power”. He added that “I see it as a cynical vote-grabbing exercise in a city where they remain unpopular and Manchester City Council holds one Tory out of 96 councillors”.