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Keeping the pressure on for more devolution

Greater Manchester has done a fine job in the last 25 years of delivering real change. In the last months, on the back of the devolution agreement and the devolution of health and social care budgets, it is starting to do even more. Nevertheless, economic challenges remain and poverty and inequality are hard to shift. The current level of devolved power and resource cannot be the fixed deal and must be pushed further if Greater Manchester and other combined authorities are to scale up the advantages of devolution.

It is vitally important to keep the pressure on government for more devolution. Let’s not forget that we’ve had 80 years of false dawns – Whitehall has past form in retreating from its promises. History tells us the government could easily slip into a slowdown, or come the Devolution Bill think that legislation offers a full stop.

The hardest thing for those in power is to give it away. This is especially true for a Whitehall that has centralisation in its DNA. Whitehall remains an overbearing parent and it can’t stop telling local government what it can or cannot do. The much heralded draft Devolution Bill could be seen as merely moving power from Parliament to Whitehall and the secretary of state, rather than to city-regions and local government. The Chancellor has said that ‘a true powerhouse requires true power’, but the recent Trans Pennine rail upgrade ‘pause’ – a key element to the ‘northern powerhouse’ – and then the go again, sends out a message that Whitehall is in control and commitment ebbs and flows.

All this casts a few seeds of doubt over the depth of commitment to devolution across Whitehall and the government. I suspect the government is now appreciating what it has unleashed and it’s wary. I know of no plans, but what would Whitehall do, for example, if Greater Manchester decides a different route to how it wants to spend the £6bn health budget money – say introducing free prescriptions? What would government do if there was an elected mayor with an anti- austerity electoral mandate?

I have said before that this devolution process is imperfect and flawed. There is too much uncertainty as to the pathways we are on and Whitehall still holds the cards. As such, combined authorities have a canny game to play. On the one hand, if they ask in the wrong way or demand too much they could scare government and it will clam up. On the other, to deliver an even greater economic and social dividend they must keep the pressure on and aim for more devolved power and resource.

They must firstly build confidence in their ability to deliver. The likelihood of more devolution will crumble if combined authorities don’t grab and secure what they have (and have been promised) and show that they can make it work.

However, let’s be under no illusions. To secure and fulfil the promise of devolution the next logical step is for more fiscal decentralisation and some autonomy over tax revenues, raised in the city-region (albeit within a new framework of national fairness). With some fiscal autonomy the ability to deliver more jobs, redouble efforts on poverty, protect public services and reduce demand on them could be even more effectively secured.

So, secondly, they must build a local fiscal case for more devolution and prove there is the acumen and capacity to operate it locally. The case is about showing how some fiscal devolution is imperative to delivering economic, social and public service reform goals. A key part of this is linking economic progress with social progress. Despite all the excellent work done so far, the present devolution deal is probably not going to be voracious enough to address the depths of the crisis in public services and the longstanding systemic social issues, which some cities have endured for decades. Levering tax revenues and investment, in distinctive locally controlled ways, has to be part of the rationale for further devolution.

Thirdly, they must build more of a citizens’ movement. Lessons from Scotland tell us that wider civil society has a vital role to play in making the case and pushing for more. I am sure, for instance, that there is significant support for devolution in Greater Manchester and it needs to be harnessed in new ways and capitalised on even more. The bargaining hand of Greater Manchester’s Combined Authority could be even stronger if power for more devolution comes from an axis of the local state and a movement of Salfordians, Mancunians, Boltonians, Wiganers and others.

It’s a tricky balance. It’s a soft push. However, with a proven track record of delivering on devolution, a strengthened fiscal and social case for devolution and harnessed people power, the mandate for further devolution could be unstoppable.

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