Manchester shows why English devolution should be to city regions

Manchester Town Hall, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when everything that mattered in political economy was happening in Manchester. All at once. In the early years of the 1840s, the Anti-Corn Law League, led out of the Free Trade Hall, Manchester by Richard Cobden and John Bright, was pressing the Prime Minister, Robert Peel of Bury, to lift tariffs on corn, known by the working class who suffered the cost, as “the bread tax”.

At this very moment, when the argument for free trade was on the verge of success, half a mile away two studious young Germans were skating out a different course which would in time convulse half the world. In the library at Chetham’s music school a Manchester mill owner called Friedrich Engels and his visiting friend Karl Marx were working on a manuscript that would be published in 1848 under the portentous title of The Communist Manifesto.

It is little wonder that Disraeli had described Manchester as “the philosophical capital of the world”, although it was Cobden and Bright who prevailed rather than Marx and Engels. Manchester has always owed more to mercantilism than Marxism.

That is still true today now that Cobden and Bright stand guard in stone in Albert Square outside the magnificent town hall, in which one of the great urban revivals was, in part, created. Manchester of the 1980s was, like many provincial towns reliant on manufacturing industry, a rather dispirited place. There was a lot to like about it and, as resident, I loved it – but there was no question that Manchester’s sense of itself was defined too much by economic failure. In the 1840s the newspapers had been full of anguished pieces about the North-South divide in which the North had all the money and the jobs. In the 1980s the articles were back but this time the other way round. Even the Manchester Guardian had moved to fancy London.

Good governance in part helped Manchester to thrive again; but only in part. There were three other elements in the revival of Manchester which owe a lot to the animal spirits of the city’s culture. The first was that private enterprise was unleashed. It is to the credit of the politicians and officials, notably Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein, who understood Manchester could flourish only if it became more prosperous.

The second element was the spirit of the people themselves. Manchester has a culture which survived, and partly alleviated, industrial decline. These days it is good business. Cultural industries in the Manchester region contribute £135.9m in gross value added each year and employ more than 4,000 people. In the North West, like everywhere else, every pound invested in culture pays back £5.

The third element was a welcome absence of partisan political point-scoring. In a deal negotiated by the Conservative chancellor George Osborne with a Labour council, Greater Manchester now has a suite of new powers, notably over the health and social care budget, which will fall to a new mayor.

These partnerships, between public and private enterprise and between local government and citizens, are the ingredients of a flourishing city. Manchester over the last decade has been a case study in why it matters to shift power to the level of the city.

It is important to note that the city level is the correct point for power to land. Curious as it was for a party so rooted in the north of England, Labour came to power in 1997 with no real understanding of the various cultural identities that make up the north. There is a good deal of residual affection for the old counties. My mother and all her friends never really accepted the 1974 local government reorganisation which took her town from Lancashire into Greater Manchester. But the allegiance was held to the county, not to a nebulous thing called a region.


The idea of a region is an economic unit which might make sense in consideration of transport policy and the deathless prose of spatial awareness plans – but it had no connection to how people thought of themselves. It was no surprise that when regional assemblies were put to a vote hardly anyone cared and most of those who did were opposed.

The city is a much better focus of identity because even people who are proudly from Bury, Bolton, Oldham or Rochdale feel a sense of pride in a fine metropolis within easy travelling distance. There is still a task to ensure that the prosperity generated in Manchester spreads out into the towns on its perimeter, but that can be done.

The mayor will be subject to the usual petty local rivalries as leaders used to their own fiefdoms suddenly find a big new player but they need to get over themselves and co-operate. Durkheim once said that not everything contractual is in the contract, and that is the case with the new mayoral powers. The scope of the powers available will rather depend on how effectively they are wielded. Rather than obstruct and declare a kind of political independence from Manchester, the mill towns of former Lancashire would be well-advised to pitch in.

They may well soon find the need for safety in numbers. The cuts to local government are about to bite. Since 2010 national government has been curiously Janus-faced about local government. One face presents a salutary commitment to the devolution of power. There is a case that the coalition between 2010 and 2015 sought to devolve more power than any of its predecessors.

At the same time, the government presented a hard face when it came to the financial settlement. The best local authorities – Bury and Oldham have been imaginative – have responded by thinking rather than complaining, but the capacity for obvious reforms is starting to run into the reality that you cannot keep statutory services running without more money. On that at least, the studious young men in the library at Chetham’s were right.

Philip Collins is chief leader writer and columnist at The Times. This article appears in an essay collection ‘Neo-localism – rediscovering the nation’ published this week by the think-tank Localis.

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What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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