Devo Manc: A Rough and Partial History

A little pre-history rant.

In the beginning was God. More precisely in the beginning was the redefinition of God’s role. He was pulled out of social services by Henry VIII necessitating the building up of local social security and administration – the development of the Elizabethan Poor Law. In the towns self selecting corporations had been operating under charters, often for hundreds of years, charters which conferred local privileges and local money raising powers. Oddly Manchester lost (literally) its charter and was still run by the Mosley lords of the manor in 1835.

Nineteenth-century free trade Liberalism required the breaking down of the old corporate local elites with their rotten boroughs, and their special privileges. The old corporate administrations in the boroughs had to go – the middle class needed to be able to vote in their leaders – and overthrow the obstacles that were the vested interests. Eventually even the gentry’s monopoly control of the counties was ended by the setting up of rural county councils in 1888.

By 1880 middle class elites ran the towns. They had responsibilities for basics of health and housing and poor law. They funded themselves by rates and public subscriptions. Both were possible because profits were made and consumed locally by local elites with a strong commitment to their towns which gave them this wealth, power and status. Philanthropy played an important role.

This system decayed and atrophied throughout the 20th century as businesses and profits became concentrated, the welfare state evolved, the electorate expanded and the centralised British state took the local out of local government.

After the rant, the late 20th Century.

Then there was Wetherby. In the late 1980s the northern regions of the Labour Party began to realise that their regional development strategies where going nowhere as Thatcher’s de-industrialisation, the pull of London and EU developments and the emergence of the nations’ devolution agenda, kicked in. An unofficial secretive caucus made up of these regions’ leaderships (called the Wetherby Group because it met there) began to plot the (eventually successful) overturning of Kinnock’s hostility to devolution. Their central demand was devolved regional parliaments – seeing that democracy was needed as well as devolved powers. Manchester City Labour Party leadership was the only dissenter.

The collapsing regional development agenda was pushed over by Manchester’s response. Manchester City Council’s Left Labour leadership came out of the ‘Municipal Socialism’ period by launching the Economic Development Committee period. Largely out of sight, the Labour leadership built up a new urban development model – once (still?) known as the Manchester model – which tied local government and local business leaders together in the search for any form of funding going. It was and remains a development model based on a city core and trickle down effect – directly counterposed to the traditional regional model.

I attended what might have been the death knell of the old regional agenda in about 1990 when Lancashire County Council leader Louise Ellman and the regional LP chair organised a people’s assembly in Preston. Hundreds of delegates from Councils, Community groups, business, trades unions, anything were summoned to convince British Rail to activate the already built and tested chunnel trains to Brussels and Paris – it achieved nothing.

The Manchester model had enormous success in sucking in resources –money for two Olympic and one Commonwealth Games bids, vast funding for the tram network, rebuilding money after the 1996 IRA bomb, second runway at the airport (this airport is owned by the 10 Greater Manchester Councils with Manchester taking a 55% share), Media City. In many ways the airport is the hub of all this – and there appears to be a real heat in the local service economy. The city centre is a building site, vast numbers of flats and new hotels are going up, finishing the tram system, the orbital motorway is being redeveloped, even the railways are getting a bit of a make over. A new port is being built on the ship canal by the secretive but ubiquitous Peel Holdings. The old centre of Salford is being turned into an extension of Manchester city centre.

This model has always required government support. You really have to sit down and ask where the money is coming from. It is a competitive model of gaining access to a disproportionate share of resources in the hope of trickle down gains. It was running to an end until Osborne offered his help. You can only speculate as to how important Osborne thinks northern development is – but Manchester needed more input, and with the new arts centre and the deal with China for a big development of a derelict central area, it appears to be forthcoming. But the payoff is the mayor and a role in NHS privatisation and expenditure cutbacks – a new electoral system that can take leadership away from party, as well as an executive leader needing no permanent apparatus of support, accountable to the people providing the money – directly or indirectly the government.

A radical response for local government.

We need to start working on how local authorities can have democratic control of resources that are not dependant on the whims of central government. I suspect that local authorities within regional systems who have a constitutional right to a share of national taxation (raised exclusively from a progressive income tax of course) moderated by a new variation of the Barnett Formula is the only way forward. A plan which could only live at a propaganda level at the moment – but a clear long term objective is needed.

I am fairly convinced that what has been achieved by the current model in Manchester is not repeatable across the north. (Maybe Birmingham can do it in the midlands). Why not? The airport, being years ahead, the coming recession, China losing capacity, HS2 (too expensive) and … Trident!

So when the question of failure to benefit the people is raised we can point a new way forward.