Patchy roll out
This week saw some significant developments in the roll out of devolution in Greater Manchester at least. It was always going to take a lot to fill the shoes of Sir Howard Bernstein, the retired Chief Executive of Manchester City Council, so it is no surprise that we now have two Chief Executives, Joanne Roney running the city and Eamonn Boylen the Combined Authority(CA).
I was in the new CA headquarters on Oxford Street last week and reflected that exactly 43 years ago I walked into County Hall on Portland Street, the Greater Manchester Council’s new HQ. In 1974, It was felt it was a good idea to have a strategic authority for the whole county. After a costly abolition in 1986, we are now back to square one in some ways, although having an elected mayor may make it different.
While the devolution band wagon is visible in the Greater Manchester and Liverpool city regions, elsewhere in the North the roll out is patchy and incoherent with a great deal of uncertainty about how far meaningful devolution will extend beyond the Liverpool and Manchester City Regions. Lord Porter, the Tory chair of the Local Government Association thinks devolution is dead because the government have encountered petty squabbling in areas of two tier local government or opposition to the concept of elected mayors in more rural areas.
That is an extreme view. Whilst it is true that Brexit is a major distraction in all departments and that the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid remains in an inactive sulk having been moved from his role as Business Secretary, there was enough energy and ideas at the recent NP conference in Manchester to convince me that the project is not dormant. But if business outside the Manchester and Liverpool City Regions want similar packages they need to knock politician’s heads together across the rest of the North.
A ragged picture
Leeds is the greatest underperformer so far. This great city should have been electing a mayor this May with a full devolution deal. Disputes with some surrounding authorities have prevented this and the latest idea for a mayor for a Yorkshire wide body across three combined authorities looks set for a ministerial veto as it would need new parliamentary legislation. Sheffield isn’t having a mayoral poll this year either. This is partly because of a row with Derbyshire over whether Chesterfield could be included in a new South Yorkshire authority even though it has no border with it.
Now we come to the town of Warrington which recently flirted with the idea of joining the Liverpool City Region. That would have scuppered the idea of bringing the town together with the two Cheshire councils in a powerful authority at the southern end of the North West. The Merseyside dalliance is now over and talks are underway again for a Cheshire and Warrington devolution deal. However, a new constellation has entered the Cheshire scene…literally. A grouping of Cheshire’s two councils and the Local Enterprise Partnership have come together with six Staffordshire authorities under the Constellation Partnership. They’re starry eyed about the economic potential of the HS2 hub around Crewe. However, the idea of an elected mayor may be a sticking point once again.
Lancashire has suffered for years from having sixteen councils, thirteen districts, two unitaries and the county council. The leader of Lancashire Council, Jennifer Mein, is the equivalent of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the sense that she has used calm and wise leadership to try and bring all the parties together. Wyre Council have stood out against a deal for a long time and Fylde have now joined them. A devolution deal will have to await the result of the closely contested county election next month.
Elections are also due this summer in Cumbria where the idea of an elected mayor for this largely rural county has been a stumbling block. Relations between the districts and county are not good with talk of a combined authority being formed without Cumbria County Councils involvement.
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