Making Devolution work – cities and regions in England are next

greater manchester

One of the surprising developments (for some) regarding the changes facing those who want to devolve and democratise services has been the Government’s push to create city regions in England as a way of demonstrating their commitment to further decentralisation.

These proposals have had a mixed reaction from some: there is serious doubt as to whether the economic gains cited by the Government are achievable and as the proposals have been set out (in an apparently random fashion) it is difficult to see how coherent or connected they are.

At the same time for cities to take advantage of the offer, they have to commit to changes in the way the new structures and processes will be governed.

The requirement to have an elected mayor is being resisted in many quarters. The proposals are, also, not uniform across those English authorities who have either opted to be included or who are exploring the possibility.

The 10 authorities that make up Greater Manchester are seen to be the flagship of the changes. And whilst the 10 councils have agreed on their mayor (the present Police and Crime Commissioner) the potential impact of the changes is still difficult to assess: the current package includes the usual suspects (infrastructure, economic development) but also childrens’ services, health and social care as well as skills and training.

But not all of these initiatives will sit together even in Greater Manchester.

So we can expect a patchwork quilt of services some co-existing alongside others and some being configured and managed across the new combined authority.

Why does this matter ? I think it is important for three reasons: firstly , we are a provider of education and training for a whole generation of individuals who want to work in these professional settings – thus the organisation, structure and governance of these services matters to them and it should matter to us; secondly,we know that the short to medium term funding of these services is undergoing profound reductions and cost cutting – it should matter to us because of the impact these changes taken together will have on communities and individuals – there is a whole research agenda here; and finally , it matters because there is a potential space being created (in my opinion) which is also about local democracy and decision making and given that we work within a highly centralised system the opening up of spaces to speculate on different ways of doing things is something we should be interested in.

This is a key policy, practice and political set of questions we will return to in 2016.

Why policy matters and why we need to talk about it more

The General Election campaign, not formally announced but underway,is being dominated by the personalities (or lack of).

So it matters that the Green Leader had a difficult interview or that senior MPs can offer to trade their services for £5,000 a day but that other (potentially more significant things) issues can be ignored or missed altogether.

An important announcement by the Government some time ago (and backed by the other major parties) was the decentralisation of decision making and budgets to something called the City Region of Greater Manchester.

The language is not as important as the act and the decision that have been made.

All the decisions on policing, fire and rescue, transport, planning and infrastructure will be made by the leaders of the 10 authorities in Greater Manchester. Alongside some decisions on education and training (probably related to skills and apprenticeships).

At some point, possibly 2017 or 2018, an elected mayor will be responsible – a kind of Boris Johnson mark two. And now the Government are saying that all health spending will be devolved too. So goodbye Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). And what about the NHS restructure introduced in 2010? The new addition has major implications for the kind of health service we have, we might want and we might hope for. But that wont be part of the General Election campaign.

The decision to decentralise is a really important and significant one. There is a whole set of arguments which support it and , indeed, it can be seen that it brings decisions closer to where we live.

But not to include it as part of the May 2015 conversation is a big error and misses the trick of connecting policy decisions to the wishes of local communities and thus brings the national (or in this case a kind of regional) to the local.

Its part of the accountability and transparency that makes civic society healthy (or healthier than it is) and we should be asking questions about what this new announcement means. It could be a way of reviving our public and policy conversations.