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.