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Q & A with Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester Council

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As Greater Manchester moves towards more devolved powers Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester Council, talks to New Start about poverty, progressive procurement, and building scale in the social sector.

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Q. Greater Manchester is in many ways an economic success story. What do you see as key to that success?

A. There was a recognition in late 1990s that economies don’t perform according to local authority boundaries and that the closer you can get interventions organised around the level of the real economy the more likely they are to be successful. We took Greater Manchester as being an approximation to our functional economic area and the first Greater Manchester economic strategy was in 2001. We spent many years pursuing devolution of economic levers and went to government nine years ago and this ultimately led to the combined authority. We invented something that is robust and transferable in non-metropolitan settings too. What you have is collaborative working, an evidence base, good governance and leadership and a willingness to innovate.

Another thing we’ve been able to do through Total Place and Whole Place Community Budgets is to understand and build a functioning relationship between economic and social policy. The core of that is work. Work is fundamental whether you are dealing with troubled families or re-offending. Work is an absolutely crucial element that needs to be tackled.

Q. Despite the economic success the region still has grave social problems with 30% of the population economically inactive and 1 in 10 in extreme poverty.

A. It’s true we have enormous levels of deprivation in the city and across the whole of Greater Manchester. What you need to do is create jobs. We need to improve education and make our skills offer relevant to where the economy is and where growth is. For those furthest from the labour market we have to analyse needs on an individual basis and tailor interventions and support.

We have launched Working Well for those who went through the Work Programme and came out the other side. We have now agreed to a 50,000 place programme. It’s similar to Troubled Families in that people are given a lead worker that can commission a number of interventions as or when needed. It’s about cross disciplinary working.

Poverty is an enormous drag on the economy. Poorer people don’t have money to buy stuff and take more in terms of public funding. People think that public funding is about parks and libraries but actually the vast majority of funding goes to a small number of people and if we reduce that by creating more independence we could spend more money on libraries and parks.

Q. You’ve begun a journey of progressive procurement at the council and within local partners. What have been the benefits of that?

A. Through the work the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has done analysing our spend we’ve shown were pretty good at procuring at the local level and we have got better. One way we can ensure that growth benefits more people is to look again at our own procurement. We have a range of partners – hospitals and further education colleges – all paying the living wage. Some of those partners were very actively working with us to make jobs available to local residents. The two universities in central Manchester used to employ virtually no local people now employ 100s of people locally. It’s changed their relationship with their immediate neighbours so that in places like Ardwick – one of the most deprived areas of the city – which used to see the university as the enemy now see them positively as the place they can get a job.

Q. A report on a Civil Economy for Manchester highlighted the strength on the social sector but also the need for it to be stronger. What are your thoughts on how the social sector can be more linked into the economic story of the region?

A. One of things the social sector lacks is the scale and capacity to be able to do everything we’d like it to do. We have to grow it organically over a period of time. There’s an organisation in Manchester that is an exception. It’s a social enterprise called Big Life which has grown and is now providing health services and running schools and our Working Well programme. We need more of those. Strengthening neighbourhood organisations is also very important.

We also need to do the same for the social sector as we’re doing in the commercial sector – to increase opportunities for local suppliers. Programmes like Community Chest allows the social sector to get a foot in the door and be able to bid for contracts.

We can do more to improve the links between the business and the social sectors. We had a working party last year looking at ethical procurement and we’re going to do a bit more work on that. I guess the task we have within our procurement is how we increase the social value element of it while at same time being cognisant of the financial position we are in. It has to be social value that adds value and is not a cost.

richardleese2Q. Will devolution lead to greater social outcomes for the region?

A. What we do will be tailored to needs in Manchester, whether its skills needs or labour market information. National one-size-fits-all social interventions are inefficient and haven’t delivered the outcomes we need. The alternative route of public service reform, place-based budgeting, integrated services at a local level gives far greater opportunity for innovation and for new players to come into the field.

The devolution route means that we are commissioning at a Greater Manchester level rather than a national level so a lot will be delivered at neighbourhood level rather than in bigger units. It gives an opportunity for smaller deliverers to be involved in the supply chain.

Over the last five years we’ve seen lots done by relatively small number of national contracts which makes it almost impossible for the smaller organisations to be primes – the best they can be is probably second tier subcontractors. One of the impacts of devolution will be to see that change.

But organisations do need a certain amount of scale to be able to deliver and in Greater Manchester more consolidation is needed.

Q. Manchester is often described as a people-powered city with a can-do attitude. What more can you do to invest in people?

A. One aspect is about improving functional elements by giving people the skills and opportunities, and improving local transport. But there are also attitudinal aspects. I’ve been arguing for a while about the idea of citizenship. Public services have become consumer services and citizens expect them to be like supermarkets. But it’s not like that. If you want to live in a good neighbourhood you have to make a contribution. The council can’t afford to do everything and even if we could it’s not a good thing to do. So if there’s rubbish outside your house don’t call the council, pick it up.

Devolution is a good thing not only because it delivers better outcomes but because it’s also right in principle. Starting from the fact that as a citizen I want more control over my life and for my family to have more control and my neighbourhood. That’s what devolution is about: getting decision-making down to the lowest effective level. But that only works when you have active citizens, people being expected to play their part.

Q. What’s your vision for the next 10 years?

To be fiscally independent but to have largely eliminated benefit dependency would be a very healthy place. I’m not sure we’ll do it in 10 years but the figures for both growth and elimination of poverty are heading in the right direction. Over the last four years growth in Greater Manchester was 4.6% as against 3.3% nationally and 4% for London. In terms of rebalancing we were growing faster than London. In 2007 of families with children, 44% were below the poverty line. Over the last five years the number of families with kids grew by 15% and the number in poverty went down to 33.9% so that means a 25% reduction in poverty. So during a recession we reduced significantly the absolute number of families in poverty. If we carry on along that line and can reduce it by 25% every five years for a bit longer we’ll get to where we want to be.

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