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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.  

 
 
 
 

Five lessons for cities from a decade of Centre for Cities research

The view of Vancouver from Locarno Beach Park. Image: Getty.

With the government potentially facing years of “trench warfare” in Parliament, and Brexit set to dominate the national political agenda for the foreseeable future, local leaders have the chance to play a critical role in driving the UK’s economy in the coming years. However, it’s also clear that UK cities will face big challenges in the new economic circumstances outside the EU, and in responding to other issues such as globalisation and automation.

To meet these challenges and opportunities, local leaders will need to make the most of their existing resources and powers – and one of the best ways to do so is to learn from the experiences and ideas of other places.

That’s why the Centre for Cities recently launched a new, easy-to-navigate case study library featuring over 150 examples of good practice from cities in the UK and across the world. Drawn from more than 10 years of Centre for Cities research, the library offers examples of innovative and effective urban policy making in areas such as housing and transport, skills and employment, business and enterprise, and leadership.

In the process of compiling the case study library, five key lessons for cities stood out in particular:

1) Pooling resources with other local authorities can help places achieve more than they can do on their own.

Take Cambridge, for example. Its ability to deliver housing changed in the mid-2000s thanks to the establishment of the Cambridge sub-regional housing board.

By working in partnership with neighbouring authorities (as well as with development companies and a strategic planning unit), Cambridge has been able to reach a consensus on the importance of increasing density and introducing transport-oriented urban extensions.

2) Cities should also make the most of the support and initiatives that non-public sector partners can offer.

For example, Manchester City Council worked in partnership with NESTA and other agencies to launch an innovative ‘Creative Credit’ voucher scheme in 2010. Through this initiative, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the city region were given vouchers worth £4,000 to spend on buying services from creative companies provided they spent at least £1,000 themselves. The pilot was oversubscribed and its evaluation showed a positive impact on sales and the innovation capacity of participants.

3) Having a clear understanding of the needs of people targeted by a specific programme or project will be vital in its success.

This is demonstrated by the success of Blade Runners, an employment programme set up by the City of Vancouver to support 15-30 year olds facing multiple barriers from getting into training and/or employment (such as substance misuse, homelessness, transportation costs and legal issues).

Three quarters of the participants in the programme completed training and moved into jobs, a success rate made possible by the continuous, targeted support provided by Blade Runners coordinators. This included referring participants to appropriate resources, and providing them with breakfast and lunch, living allowances, travel tickets, tools, equipment and work gear for training.


4) Even when cities do not have formal powers to make a difference, they can still use their leadership role to influence and inspire positive changes.

For example, in 2010 the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson launched the London Apprenticeship Campaign which aimed to increase awareness of the scheme. Letters signed by the London Mayor were sent to CEOs of large businesses outlining the value of apprenticeships, and the potential benefits of recruiting apprentices. The campaign had a positive impact on raising awareness among employers and helped to boost the profile of apprenticeships in London.

5) Monitoring and evaluating projects from their early stages is crucial for their long-term success.

San Francisco offers a clear example of how long term policy making coupled with close monitoring can drive change and create jobs. In 2002, the city set itself the goal of a 75 per cent reduction in landfill waste by 2010 and zero waste by 2020. Thanks to close evaluation of the projects, the city realised its efforts were not enough to reach the target, and so introduced a further 20 laws to address these issues. The city is now ahead of its schedule in meeting objectives.

You can access the case study library and to read about these examples in more detail here. We are always keen to hear about new case studies, so please do get in contact if you’d like to share good practice from your city.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.