Let’s not be foolish: this new authority must connect

It is unfortunate but it is the only date available. The Manchester Combined Authority will be born on 1 April to polite applause from some and scepticism from others. As someone who has seen this newest member of the local government family emerge I want to reflect on my hopes and fears.

I am hopeful because I believe that there needs to be a way of councils combining together that does not involve Whitehall. However, I am fearful that it will not capture the public’s imagination in that it may just be seen as another bureaucratic administrative convenience. We are very good at devising new administrative structures in local government and you only have to look back at the Redcliffe Maud Commission, the change of administrative boundaries in 1974 and the abolition of the GLC to realise that we cannot resist a good administrative shakeup.

The problem is that we do not seem to feel public identity is terribly important so we create councils that the public do not necessarily identify with and are surprised when the public fail to vote. This is not just an issue for us – you only have to look at the European Parliament to realise that failure to identify with an institution inevitably leads to disillusionment.

The Manchester city-region (which is what this is) builds on what the ten local authorities have been good at; working together.

Firstly, the fact that we collectively own Manchester Airport, one of the most successful businesses in Greater Manchester, is testament to that working relationship and incidentally if you have ever flown from East Midlands Airport or Bournemouth you have contributed to the welfare of the citizens of Greater Manchester. In order to run such a successful business we have inevitably had to talk to each other and differing political parties have learnt pragmatically to work together.

Secondly, along with local businesses we are building on a tradition in Manchester of a healthy distrust of decisions from London and long held the view that we are better at decisions affecting Greater Manchester than civil servants in Whitehall.

The city-region will have economic planning powers and supervised transport arrangements. It will be based on ten council leaders forming a board with a business council to advise it and working together with the local enterprise partnership. There has also been agreement between the ten authorities to discharge our responsibilities in relation to 14-19 education and training as a single entity.

All this is good stuff, but what I am more interested in is how this is going to evolve. There will be those who will feel that this does not go far enough and that we should be looking for, as an example, a single mayor for Greater Manchester, which I believe would be a terrible mistake.

When the Greater Manchester Council was abolished there was not a massive uprising of people determined to protect it and the truth is that in Greater Manchester you see yourself as being a resident of Oldham, Rochdale or Salford first and Greater Manchester second and it is important that our structures, just for once, reflect popular perception rather than override it.

This is about pooled sovereignty rather than the giving up of responsibilities, but what I hope will develop is recognition by central government that it is time to give up some of the excessive centralised powers that it currently has.

On 1 April I am not expecting the running up of flags or cheering residents, but sometimes quiet revolutions turn out to be more permanent.


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