The most significant political story today is George Osborne’s confirmation that he intends to hand Greater Manchester control of the region’s £6bn health and social care budget (a quarter of total government spending in the area). Never in the history of the NHS has there been such devolution in England. The announcement was due to be made on Friday, during a visit by Osborne to the area, but the Chancellor’s plans were foiled after the Manchester Evening News got hold of a draft “memorandum of understanding” between the region’s councils and the Treasury.
This being Osborne, who remains the Conservatives’ chief electoral strategist, the politics are crucial. He has framed the move, which would take effect from April 2016, as part of his drive to create a “northern powerhouse”, a project with the political aim of decontaminating the Conservative brand in that region (one inspired by Osborne’s special adviser Neil O’Brien, the former director of Policy Exchange). The Tories are also hailing the proposed integration of health and social care spending as evidence that they are making the running on a cause that Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has long championed.
But if the politics are clear, the policy is not. By promising Greater Manchester control of health spending, the Conservatives have set a precedent that several other areas will want to follow (Tessa Jowell, the Labour London mayoral candidate, was swift to demand equivalent powers for the capital). In so doing, they have driven a coach and horses through Labour’s proposed national integration of health and social care. As Burnham noted in his response, the resultant danger is the creation of a “two-tier” NHS which destroys the principle of a universal and comprehensive service. In the middle of the greatest funding squeeze in the NHS’s history, Osborne’s “devo Manc” project, which would likely necessitate another reorganisation, risks being a dangerous distraction. Under Burnham’s alternative vision, health and social care would be nationally integrated (producing up to £6bn in savings) with individual local authorities and GP commissioning bodies working in harness to build new services.
Osborne’s proposal of stand-alone devolution to Manchester resembles an answer in search of a problem. Worse, it threatens to create new dysfunctions. At the last count, the region’s hospitals were running a deficit of £40m. Who will pick up the bill in the event of a crisis? Though the Conservatives will protest otherwise, the move risks being the first step in the ultimate unravelling of a truly national health service.