Almost a decade to the day after the rejection by voters of a regional assembly for the North East, the announcement has been made of a historic agreement between government and the 10 Greater Manchester authorities that could lead to the devolution of significant powers to the Manchester city region. Manchester has been the most vocal and active city region in pursuing the case for devolution and is currently formulating what would be the first statutory spatial development framework for a city region.
The deal with government will build on the existing legal framework of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). This was established in 2011 under the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 which allows combined authorities to be created to cover the areas of two or more local authorities in England. They are bodies corporate which can exercise functions relating to transport, economic development and regeneration. The proposals announced go beyond these three areas as under the settlement a directly-elected Mayor for Greater Manchester would be created who would also be responsible for the role currently exercised by the Police and Crime Commissioner as a well as assuming a role in the delivery of housing across the city region.
The constraints of the current statutory framework mean that new legislation will be required before these proposals can come to fruition. Given the timescales involved (an election is not anticipated until 2017), transitional arrangements have been mooted which will include an appointed mayor who will assume some of the responsibilities of an elected mayor.
In terms of governance, the need to avoid a democratic deficit has clearly influenced the thinking. The proposals are that the elected Mayor will lead GMCA, chair its meetings and allocate responsibilities to its cabinet, which will be made up of the leaders of each of the 10 local authorities. Whilst the directly-elected Mayor will be responsible for the new powers in relation to transport, planning, housing and policing, the post holder will be required to consult the GMCA Cabinet on his/her strategies. The Cabinet may reject these if two-thirds of members agree to do so. In recognition of the particular sensitivities relating to planning, the statutory spatial framework will require approval by a unanimous vote of the Mayor’s Cabinet. The prize for the city region is potentially huge including the control of a new Housing Investment Fund of up to £300m
Where Manchester has led other City Regions are likely to want to follow and Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has expressed the hope that the Leeds and Sheffield City regions will be next in line to benefit from devolution pacts. This could happen before the end of 2014. Crucially, Nick Clegg has indicated that whatever deals are struck need not involve the introduction of an elected mayor. This is important as Leeds and Sheffield were two of the Cities that decisively rejected proposals for elected mayors for their cities in 2012. The need to recognise the particular circumstances and idiosyncrasies of each of the City Regions will be key when it comes to the successful devolution of powers.