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Where’s the Democracy in the Manchester Devolution Deal?

Over 150 people took part in a meeting about “DevoManc” at Manchester Central Hall on 6 October, 2015, as part of an ESRC Knowledge Exchange programme. People raised a wide range of concerns about the lack of democracy and proposed a ‘DevoManc Charter’ and other measures to increase accountability and transparency of the process, including a constitutional convention

It was chaired by David Fernandez, Manchester Referendum Campaign, who said poll by Manchester Evening News reported that over 85% of people were opposed to the deal or wanted a referendum. Over 80% of people asked in a street poll by the Campaign did not know about the devolution plans. He pointed out that Greater Manchester had 17 strategic priorities, of which 15 were economic and two social, and none about democracy.

Panel members each discussed the potential impact of devolution on one of four themes: society, economy, environment and democracy (SEED). Academic input was from Dr Andy Mycock of Huddersfield University, who spoke on democracy.

Neil McInroy, Director of CLES and Chair of Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group, said that devolution was an opportunity and a rare chance to reverse 100 years of centralism. However, the proposals were based on a narrow economic theory of spatial economics and Treasury control. Members of the local state were doing their best and needed help to fashion a deal that included democracy. However, it would be possible to get a double dividend by putting greater emphasis on social aspects and community wealth building through a local social contract.

Stephanie Dunn, Director of the Royal College of Nursing Northern Region, said there was a lot at stake in DevoManc if they failed to get right, but it presented an opportunity. She welcomed the proposals aims for health improvement and primary prevention, but questioned whether they had the plans or means to deliver, particularly as austerity had affected staff morale. She said that a major issue was low levels of trust, which led to a lack of empathy and willingness to cooperate. Inequality in the region contributed to serious health problems, particularly mental health, including alcohol and drug abuse, and depression, which was linked to eating unhealthy comfort foods, leading to obesity and diseases such as diabetes.

Natalie Bennet, Leader, Green Party, said that Manchester was leading the way for the whole UK, and that other regions had much less time to come up with plans. She called for “no more secrets” and greater consultation, which led to the biggest applause of the evening. She welcomed the proposals to re-regulated buses in a united service, but questioned the lack of links to rail. She also questioned HS”, which would benefit London more than the North West, and said the idea that air traffic would decarbonise in 25 years was impossible. However, the elections for Mayor would be in 2017, giving people time to assert a bottom-up devolution.

Andrew Mycock, Reader in Politics at Huddersfield University, said the proposals came from a British tradition of elite-to-elite based negotiation which ignored local residents. It was centralised decentralisation for economic regeneration without political devolution. What is missing from the plans is a sense of purpose, a coherent holistic vision of the UK as a result of devolution, and a process for getting there. There was also a failure to connect two constitutional changes of English Votes for English Laws and DevoManc. This created a new version of the West Lothian Question, the Manchester Withington Question, which meant that the local MP could not vote on services for his constituency of Manchester Withington which had been devolved to Greater Manchester, but he could vote on them for the rest of England!

He warned that asymmetric, short-term constitutional fixes created tensions and risked destabilising the union, as in Scotland. This was in contrast to the federal systems of Australia, the US and elsewhere which had clear, negotiated relationships between cities and regions, which were therefore stable. Regional and local elites have been too timid in their dealings with the centre, which left many issues unresolved. Democratisation was not part of the agenda and people’s views were of no interest to the elites negotiating the deals. No account was being taken of the fact that voters had rejected mayors in recent referenda. The evidence from the US was that Mayors were not so effective, which has been confirmed by London, where turnout was just 38%, about the same as local elections.

The plans raised several other questions:

  • What steps are being taken to change Westminster and Whitehall: none are evident so far;
  • What’s going to happen to counties outside the city regions?
  • Where is the parity between regions and the centre, so that regions can plan ahead?
  • Where is the link between devolution and changes to constituency boundaries?

He thought there would be a growth in regional parties, like Yorkshire First. The fact that there will be two years until the mayor is elected meant that there is time for people to organise.

He said we need a written constitution, drawn up by a people’s assembly, which drew loud applause.

Citizens’ Views

The second part of the meeting was in small groups, which discussed the issues raised and came up with proposals which were voted on by the meeting:

  1. There should be a ‘DevoManc Charter’ including proposals such as transparency, a living wage, housing: strong support, 2 reluctant
  2. Local accountability to monitor spending of money from central government: strong support from under half, general support over half
  3. Transparency, people involved and a regional assembly: strong support from most, general support from a few
  4. Constitutional convention: strong support from a large majority, general support from a few
  5. Electoral reform / single transferable vote as for Scottish local government: strong support from a big majority
  6. all regions / nations of devolved UK should have equal power, like Australian states: strong support from about 75%, general support from just under 25%,
  7. private health and social care providers should be obliged to work together with the NHS, particularly on training, and be obliged to give back (given that they are employed staff trained by the NHS): strong support from about 75%, general support 20%, against under 5%
  8. local authorities should run local banks: strong support from 90%, general support 10%, 1 against

Closing remarks

Andy: if you don’t have democracy and a vision of the end goal there is a risk of the UK breaking up. There needs to be communication, understanding of aims, process, the end goals and transparency. The media do not see what is happening to our politics because they are focusing too much on the parties. In Scotland the SNP is not leading, but responding to demand created by people organising in communities.

Natalie: boycotting the mayoral vote is not an effective strategy – just 15% voted for Police and Crime Commissioners and they still went ahead. We need a constitutional convention – for example, there is a Northern Citizens Convention. The ERS is organising two pilot citizens conventions, so we should see what they come up with. She questioned the idea of local authorities running banks and suggested strengthening credit unions instead.

Stephanie said there is a need for democracy and listening to people’s voices

Neil said devolution is coming. 95 of discussion about it has been about what’s wrong, what we need to do now is talk about what we want for 95% of the time. We need to have a plan, to work on ideas for a social charter and a people’s place which can be put to politicians when they stand it two years’ time.

38 Degrees are looking at ways of following up the event, possibly involving people in drawing up a Manchester Charter.

The meeting was organised by a coalition of local groups concerned about DevoManc, including Assemblies for Democracy, Equality NW, 38 Degrees, Greater Manchester Trades Union Council, Unlock Democracy and the Northern Citizens’ Convention project.

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Titus Alexander, ESRC Knowledge Exchange Fellow and Convenor, Democracy Matters

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