England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Metro-centralism peril

The devolution package for Greater Manchester that George Osborne announced last week is one of the most significant pieces of decentralisation this or any other government has undertaken.

Its proposals are eye-catching, especially the creation of an elected mayor (previously opposed across Manchester), but it does not come out of the blue. Momentum has been building towards this for some time.

Manchester has a successful history of collaboration between the 10 authorities that comprise the city region. It has already created the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. It was one of first and largest City Deals. And, of course, we could equally cite 20 years of successful regeneration and a longer history of radical politics and of civic and commercial innovation in the city.

At the Local Government Information Unit, we’ve long argued that political and, to a degree, fiscal power need to be local. We argue that as well as having a democratic premium, localism is the best way to drive reform in public services. It’s good to see a head of intellectual and political steam building around that broad proposition and striking to see it being lead by the chancellor. But what are the implications of the new Manchester settlement for other parts of the country?

There’s a risk that we replace excessive centralism with excessive metro-centralism if we let this debate be all about cities.

Clearly, for Manchester, the greater city region is the best level at which to drive growth, but that may not be the case everywhere. There are also compelling arguments from county councils and from districts about devolution at their level.

Too often proponents of devolution get seduced by new structures: an English Parliament, regional assemblies or elected mayors. Aside from the difficulty of meeting a democratic question with a structural response, there are practical reasons to build a high level of pluralism into the system.

We should not be trying to pick a winner among a set of structural solutions, instead we should be investing in the existing local democratic structures with the capacity and flexibility to combine and recombine in ways that are driven by local need.

That is what has happened in Manchester, where the 10 local councils remain the driving force of the combined authority. And that is the lesson we should draw from last week’s announcement.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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