Published: 5th Jul 2016
Poster at a homeless camp in Albert Square, Manchester, April 2015

The story of Manchester’s economic success jars with the city’s poverty levels. Can Devo Manc plug the gap?

‘If Engels came back to Manchester today he would still recognise the inequality that exists. After nearly 200 years of social progress what’s changed?’

Mike Wild has been chief executive of Manchester’s community and voluntary sector support organisation Macc for ten years, and has chronicled the rise of inequality in the city region.

According to the latest figures from the Greater Manchester Poverty Monitor, almost 30% of children in the region live in poverty and one in five households claim housing benefit. In the last five years rough sleeping has risen 50%. ‘We’re being overwhelmed by demand,’ Wild says.

This picture contrasts starkly with the economic story of Manchester, now at the heart of George Osborne’s vision of a ‘northern powerhouse’. In that story, the city is a model of post-industrial regeneration with GDP growth eclipsing that of London – at 4.6% – and inward investment booming.

The steady hand of the current governance structure – the leader and chief executive of the council have each been in place for almost 20 years – has been praised as an example of civic leadership and rewarded with Devo Manc, the region’s devolution package.

It gives the Manchester city region powers over transport, housing, planning, policing, skills and employment, worth around £1bn in public spend, as well as control over its £6bn health and social care services budget, which will be integrated across the region.

Leader of Manchester council Richard Leese told New Start that greater control at a more local level will allow the city region to improve its social record: ‘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.’

Devolved centralism
But doubts are surfacing about how far the deal will shift the region’s stark economic inequalities, and bring decision-making closer to the people. At a New Start event held in the city on the day that plans for devolution to be enshrined in law were announced, representatives from civil society and the public sector said that they had been left out of any discussions about the deal, and worried that it would lead to little change on the ground.

The speed of Devo Manc meant that it was brokered with little consultation with civil society, and none with citizens, delegates reported. The deal is not perfect, one delegate said, and in a time of cuts we must guard against a problematic national economic model being transplanted onto the local.

‘What we are getting is a particular type of devolution which is about economic growth and about managing the cuts – passing the book on austerity,’ said one charity boss. ‘What would be the difference between getting hit by a central stick and a local stick? It still hurts.’

In particular delegates questioned how far the city’s doughnut – the entrenched ring of poverty that surrounds Manchester – and the region’s satellite towns that are a long way from being a ‘powerhouse’ would benefit from a decentralisation of power with no change in economic policy.

While the need for partnership with the treasury is clear, what’s missing from the devolution deal on the table – and the key question in all devolution agreements – is how much room it offers to local players to forge an alternative economic and social model.