As the Northern Powerhouse continues on its path to unify the north’s biggest cities, one particular aspect of the movement has found itself under a barrage of criticism. From its first announcement, the subject of devolution has been met with conflicting levels of enthusiasm from different quarters – but what would devolved powers really mean for us?
In this article, we look at what both supporters and critics have to say about transport and health and social care under Greater Manchester’s growing independence.
Manchester in the Driving Seat
As part of the decentralisation of powers that devolution brings, Greater Manchester will have control over its various transport services. Rather than bus companies regulating themselves, Greater Manchester could instead have a ‘Transport for London’ style service, directed by the elected Mayor and local authority.
For regular bus users who have grown impatient with low-quality service and unreliable bus routes, this could be a blessing, as members of a local authority are better positioned to understand how transport in the city needs to be improved. On an even larger scale, devolved transport could help Manchester address a productivity problem seen across the country. The UK’s productivity is 17% below the average for the G7 nations, and maybe this initiative could help. As think-tank Policy Exchange commented, “making it easier for people – especially those on low incomes – to commute a further 20 minutes each way would put them within touch of two or more major employment sites, and potentially 10,000 more jobs”, allowing for greater productivity and employment rates.
Critics, however, have pointed out that Transport for London – the poster child for Manchester’s devolved transport plans has still faced huge budget cuts and crises. In recent years, TfL has had to limit services, cut others, and shift focus towards different areas of its offering in order to stave off huge losses. Who’s to say the same won’t be true for Manchester? In addition to this, some critics argue this is simply another route to privatisation, as transport franchises become available and devolved councils seek support.
Of the voices making their feelings known about devolved transport plans, Campaign for Better Transport’s James MacColl is arguably one of the loudest. As MacColl points out, there seems to be contradictions within the agenda:
“It is no good ruining efforts to get local transport authorities together to produce a northern transport strategy, by putting on hold billions of pounds of rail investment projects, failing to provide funds for local roads and buses, and wasting billions of pounds on damaging major road building schemes.”
Devolution & the NHS
For critics, the main issues with bringing control over health and social care down to a local level include muddled accountabilities and the potential for restructuring, which can distract from the bigger challenges. Indeed, the local government will need to introduce this new approach, all the while ensuring that the service being provided to end users is still being improved upon – a difficult set of tasks to juggle all at once.
Those defending devolution have pointed out that bringing control of the health and social care budget down to a local level will allow for a closer relationship between the public and those in office. From this relationship, funding initiatives which target issues faced by Greater Manchester residents can grow, allowing for a better allocation of funding that reflects what’s happening in the area.
Cost-Cutting and Economy
Transportation and health and social care form the basis of an interesting debate on devolution, but both are tied very much into the politics surrounding the agenda. At its heart, devolution is offering local people the chance to vote for a mayor who has local issues at heart.
Some quarters argue that far from being a beacon of democracy, devolution is simply a discrete way to push for the privatisation of public services, such a health and transport. This accompanies the argument that devolution is merely a cost-cutting exercise that takes advantage of local authorities combining to remove risk from Westminster. Arguing against this viewpoint, however, Greg Marsden (director of the Institute for Transport Studies) pointed out that “if the government is cutting resources in transport spending, then they can do this with or without devolution.”
Despite this criticism, local businesses have made their support for devolution clear. In a survey conducted by Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce on behalf of Centre for Cities, business leaders were shown to feel positively about a combined authority, due in part to their ability to retain local taxes, unlocking investment in the local economy. Although their support is clear, local businesses still wanted the government to know that they wished to help shape the devolved region – an opportunity which could greatly benefit the local economy.
Wait and See
As you’ll have gathered, there are vocal critics and supporters for all aspects of devolution – and each side makes a good case for or against. In reality, however, we won’t fully understand the effect devolution has on the city until after the Mayoral Elections in 2017 when devolution is in full swing. Once we start to see how healthcare, housing and transportation fare under Manchester’s autonomy, we’ll be much better placed to assess whether or not devolution was right for Manchester – and if it’s right for any of the other 38 cities bidding for more independence.
As Campaign for Better Transport’s James MacColl points out, transport is an especially crucial factor: “Ultimately, people will judge plans to move powers from Whitehall to local authorities on whether they really get the better local transport services they deserve.”
Until we’ve allowed time for devolution to settle, it’s important to keep the interest and debate continuing in order to get local businesses and residents involved in the process. After all, very soon Manchester will be ours to look after – together.