The devolution of health spending hasn't met with the level of euphoria that Manchester City's title win did. Photo:Getty Images
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There are big questions to answer for Manchester's new mayor

Devolution to Greater Manchester was greeted with general celebration. But there are broader concerns about the role and how it develops.

A fortnight ago, Tony Lloyd became the first Mayor of Greater Manchester. There were no public debates or hustings. The electorate consisted of ten people, the leaders of the local authorities that comprise Greater Manchester. After two hours of wrangling Lloyd was appointed to the post over Wigan’s leader, Lord Smith. If you wanted the antithesis of democracy and transparency, this was it.

Lloyd – a Manchester MP for nearly three decades and currently the elected Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) – is only an interim Mayor. In 2017 Greater Manchester’s citizens will elect their first ‘proper’ Mayor. What will Lloyd actually do? He will become the chair of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), which coordinates economic development, transport, and urban regeneration across the ten local authorities. Currently the role of chair is taken by one of the ten leaders. He will, however, do far more that preside over GMCA meetings.

The next two years will crucial in the implementation of ‘Devo Manc’. A range of powers covering transport, strategic planning, housing, business support, apprenticeships, and the work programme, representing more than £1 billion in public expenditure, will be devolved. And that’s not to mention the subsequent announcement that a pooled £6 billion health and social care fund will be created and placed under the control of a new Strategic Partnership Board (not the Mayor, it must be noted).

Devo Manc has arisen because of two intersecting sets of interests Local leaders want to get their hands on more money and power, ostensibly to deliver economic growth and more efficient, tailored public services. And George Osborne, Devo Manc’s Whitehall champion, is driven by a combination of political economy and party politics. He sees the deal as a key component of his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ strategy, which is as much about reviving Conservative fortunes in the North as it is about growing the North’s economy. The Chancellor insisted on a directly elected Mayor as a quid pro quo for the new powers. The speed with which the package ultimately came together over the summer of 2014 has created two significant problems that Lloyd must now grapple with.

The first problem concerns the governance arrangements. More thought needs to be given to what structures are to be put in place across Greater Manchester to receive the new powers. Local leaders will point out that their aim is not to create an unwieldy new bureaucracy at the city-region level. But, with the Mayor assuming responsibility for transport, housing and policing, it isn’t hard to imagine a degree of consolidation of existing authorities and boards, as well as a range of appointed Deputy Mayors, under the banner of an ‘Office of the Mayor’. We are told that the ten local authority leaders will each take on some Greater Manchester-wide portfolio and will collectively form the Mayor’s cabinet. But through what mechanisms will they be held accountable? The current ‘Scrutiny Pool’ arrangements for the GMCA leave much to be desired. Lloyd and his colleagues must carefully plan these, and many other, issues. But they are in some ways the easiest of the tasks ahead.

The second problem concerns democracy. On a simple level Lloyd’s selection is an affront to democracy. Despite suggestions that he will have no new powers and will ‘merely’ chair the GMCA, Lloyd will have power to shape the future governance arrangements of Greater Manchester. This will come from the soft power of his new post (it will be what he makes of it) and also the fact that, as the government’s own paper makes clear, certain powers may be transferred before 2017. Whilst those powers will technically be transferred to the GMCA, and not the interim Mayor, the potential exists for Lloyd to shape the agenda.

But there is a far bigger question about local democracy and community empowerment. Evidence shows that people want decisions to be taken at a local level, and that they trust their local councils far more than Whitehall. However, we also see increasing evidence of a desire on the part of citizens to be involved in how they are governed. This can only be done if leaders are committed to the principles of participatory democracy and local empowerment. It cannot occur by transferring powers from Whitehall to a shadowy, distant combined authority chaired by a Mayor for whom nobody voted.

Leaders across Greater Manchester are aware of their failure of engage with the public about these plans. They also share the view that one of the main jobs of the interim Mayor is to ‘sell’ Devo Manc to the public. But Lloyd must understand that his job is not that of a salesman but that of an architect. Not only must he think carefully about the governance arrangements, he must also think about how he can build an inclusive, participatory local democracy. He will begin the job with questions of legitimacy hanging over him. But the past cannot be undone. We are where we are.

How Lloyd chooses to engage from now is crucial. He should quickly launch a broad public consultation that takes its cues from strong academic research on participatory and deliberative democracy. He should make it clear that people in Greater Manchester still have a chance to talk about and shape the way in which they will be governed in the years to come. It may be the last chance to salvage something truly legitimate and democratic from this process.


Dr Daniel Kenealy is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. He, and colleagues, are currently undertaking ESRC funded research on attitudes towards how the UK is governed. They are on Twitter as @Edinburgh_AoG.

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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