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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Seven climate change myths put about by big oil companies

Oil is good for you! Image: Getty.

Since the start of this year, major players within the fossil fuel industry – “big oil” – have made some big announcements regarding climate change. BP revealed plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by acquiring additional renewable energy companies. Royal Dutch Shell defended its $1-$2bn green energy annual budget. Even ExxonMobil, until recently relatively dismissive of the basic science behind climate change, included a section dedicated to reducing emissions in its yearly outlook for energy report.

But this idea of a “green” oil company producing “clean” fossil fuels is one that I would call a dangerous myth. Such myths obscure the irreconcilability between burning fossil fuels and environmental protection – yet they continue to be perpetuated to the detriment of our planet.

Myth 1: Climate change can be solved with the same thinking that created it

Measures put in place now to address climate change must be sustainable in the long run. A hasty, sticking plaster approach based on quick fixes and repurposed ideas will not suffice.

Yet this is precisely what some fossil fuel companies intend to do. To address climate change, major oil and gas companies are mostly doing what they have historically excelled at – more technology, more efficiency, and producing more fossil fuels.

But like the irresponsible gambler that cannot stop doubling down during a losing streak, the industry’s bet on more, more, more only means more ecological destruction. Irrespective of how efficient fossil fuel production becomes, that the industry’s core product can be 100 per cent environmentally sustainable is an illusion.

A potential glimmer of hope is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that sucks carbon out of the air and sends it back underground. But despite being praised by big oil as a silver bullet solution for climate change, CCS is yet another sticking plaster approach. Even CCS advocates suggest that it cannot currently be employed on a global, mass scale.

Myth 2: Climate change won’t spell the end of the fossil fuel industry

According to a recent report, climate change is one factor among several that has resulted in the end of big oil’s golden years – a time when oil was plenty, money quick, and the men at the top celebrated as cowboy capitalists.

Now, to ensure we do not surpass the dangerous 2°C threshold, we must realise that there is simply no place for “producers” of fossil fuels. After all, as scientists, financial experts, and activists have warned, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, the proven reserves of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies cannot be consumed.

Myth 3: Renewables investment means oil companies are seriously tackling climate change

Compared to overall capital expenditures, oil companies renewables’ investment is a miniscule drop in the barrel. Even then, as companies such as BP have demonstrated before, they will divest from renewables as soon as market conditions change.

Big oil companies’ green investments only produce tiny reductions in their overall greenhouse gas emissions. BP calls these effects “real sustainable reductions” – but they accounted for only 0.3 per cent of their total emissions reductions in 2016, 0.1 per cent in 2015, 0.1 per cent in 2014, and so on.


Myth 4: Hard climate regulation is not an option

One of the oil industry’s biggest fears regarding climate change is regulation. It is of such importance that BP recently hinted at big oil’s exodus from the EU if climate regulation took effect. Let’s be clear, we are talking about “command-and-control” regulation here, such as pollution limits, and not business-friendly tools such as carbon pricing or market-based quota systems.

There are many commercial reasons why the fossil fuel industry would prefer the latter over the former. Notably, regulation may result in a direct impact on the bottom line of fossil fuel companies given incurred costs. But climate regulation is – in combination with market-based mechanisms – required to address climate change. This is a widely accepted proposition advocated by mainstream economists, NGOs and most governments.

Myth 5: Without cheap fossil fuels, the developing world will stop

Total’s ex-CEO, the late Christoph de Margerie, once remarked: “Without access to energy, there is no development.” Although this is probably true, that this energy must come from fossil fuels is not. Consider, for example, how for 300 days last year Costa Rica relied entirely on renewable energy for its electricity needs. Even China, the world’s biggest polluter, is simultaneously the biggest investor in domestic renewables projects.

As the World Bank has highlighted, in contrast to big oil’s claims about producing more fossil fuels to end poverty, the sad truth is that by burning even the current fossil fuel stockpile, climate change will place millions of people back into poverty. The UN concurs, signalling that climate change will result in reduced crop yields, more waterborne diseases, higher food prices and greater civil unrest in developing parts of the world.

Myth 6: Big oil must be involved in climate policy-making

Fossil fuel companies insist that their involvement in climate policy-making is necessary, so much so that they have become part of the wallpaper at international environmental conferences. This neglects that fossil fuels are, in fact, a pretty large part of the problem. Big oil attends international environmental conferences for two reasons: lobbying and self-promotion.

Some UN organisations already recognise the risk of corporations hijacking the policy-making process. The World Health Organisation, for instance, forbids the tobacco industry from attending its conferences. The UN’s climate change arm, the UNFCCC, should take note.

Myth 7: Nature can and must be “tamed” to address climate change

If you mess with mother nature, she bites back. As scientists reiterate, natural systems are complex, unpredictable, and even hostile when disrupted.

Climate change is a prime example. Small changes in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere may have drastic implications for Earth’s inhabitants.

The ConversationFossil fuel companies reject that natural systems are fragile – as evidenced by their expansive operations in ecologically vulnerable areas such as the Arctic. The “wild” aspect of nature is considered something to be controlled and dominated. This myth merely serves as a way to boost egos. As independent scientist James Lovelock wrote, “The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

George Ferns, Lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation, Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.