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Devolution: who’s telling porkies and treating us like children?

Devolution: who’s telling porkies and treating us like children?

🕔29.Oct 2015

Chris Game asks who is telling porkies and treating us like children when it comes to putting devolution deals together.

On Monday, as part of its inquiry into the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee held an evidence session at Manchester Town Hall.

Following a Q & A with members of the public, the MPs heard from several leaders of the ten boroughs comprising the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), as well as from the Referendum Campaign for Democratic Devolution.

As serially recorded in The Chamberlain Files, Manchester’s devolution is way ahead not only of the West Midlands’, but of everywhere else in the country. So too, though, is the city region’s devolution referendum campaign.

It was launched with strong local union backing in January, two months after the announcement of the first phase of the GMCA’s extensive devolution deal, part of which entailed having a directly elected mayor, who in interim form took office in June.

The elected mayor issue provided a focus for the referendum campaign, but its organisers insist that it’s not devolution per se they’re opposed to, but devolution by diktat.

Their argument is that “ordinary people” should have the basic democratic right to have a say in “any changes, welcome or otherwise, to the way they are governed”. By contrast, the existing devolution package is conditional on its “imposition on the people of Greater Manchester, without any reference to their views whatsoever, of a directly elected mayor – a form of government which … has been either directly rejected by voters or by local councils themselves for their own areas.”

At which point, it may be tiresomely useful, as we’re bound to be hearing a lot more of them, to take a brief terminological break to clarify just which of these kinds of polls are technically referendums and which aren’t.

The 2012 metro-mayoral ones just alluded to definitely were referendums: a policy enacted in government legislation but referred to local electors to approve or reject. So too are the council tax referendums that councils nowadays must hold, and win, if they wish to raise council tax by a higher percentage than that specified by the Government.

However, “having a say”, as demanded by the Manchester Referendum Campaign, sounds like and would be a non-binding consultative ballot – like Sutton Coldfield’s technically non-binding vote on having a town council, and on a larger scale the highly significant vote promised this week to County Durham electors on the county’s share of the recently announced North East devolution deal.

Returning to Manchester, though, whether the vote in question would be a referendum or ‘mere’ consultative ballot, its very prospect is enough to unsettle the CA’s council leaders. For another thing that differentiates Manchester from other city regions and prospective CAs is that it has comparatively recent, and painful, referendum history – in the form of the hugely effective campaign against the Greater Manchester congestion charge.

Brutally summarised, the Labour Government in 2007/8 proposed a double cordon congestion charge – covering Manchester city centre and the GM urban area – the proceeds from which would trigger nearly £3 billion of government funding for public transport improvements, thereby further reducing congestion.

However, following a well organised petition campaign by MART (Manchester Against Road Tolls), a turnout of well over 50% in what could have been a very binding mid-December referendum overwhelmingly rejected the charge by roughly 4 to 1 in all 10 boroughs – killing the charge and badly wounding AGMA (the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities and pre-incarnation of the GMCA), chief backers of the proposal.

Like the visiting MPs, today’s GMCA leaders will have heard referendum campaign spokesman David Fernandez-Arias attack their “back-room deals”, with “no public awareness, no public consultation, no democratic engagement, no scrutiny and no impact assessment.”

And the threat: “There are 17 priorities [GMCA indicators chosen to assess the devolution deal’s impact] and none concern improving democratic participation by the public. We will target leaders’ wards in [next May’s] elections just by canvassing and publishing results of what people think.”

For the referendum campaigners, the MPs’ visit proved fortuitously timed, for just last week the local government magazine, Municipal Journal, produced an analysis showing that over three quarters of the 30+ devolution bids submitted by English CAs had been made publicly available to any residents interested to learn what powers are being sought in their name.

Which means, of course, that a quarter of the bids aren’t – including those from, yes, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. In some cases, like Worcestershire’s, the explanation offered was that the bid document was “only a very rough draft”. But that obviously wasn’t GMCA’s position, and surely can’t have been – can it? – the WMCA’s.

In fact, Greater Manchester’s justification, given the devolutionary leadership role the CA has rightly earned, sounded to my innocent ears almost like a betrayal – and, I assume, to local referendum campaigners like an early Christmas prezzie. It came from Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese, who pronounced that “We don’t think [the bid] has much business in the public domain while it’s still in the development stage”. So go away and hibernate, and we’ll wake you up when we’re ready (that bit’s me).

It suddenly made one almost sympathetic to George Osborne’s insistence on elected mayors as a visible mechanism of public accountability.

Thankfully, other bid leaders and spokespersons fundamentally disagreed with Greater Manchester’s arrogant closetry – like Leicestershire CE John Sinnott, who saw publication as “a natural thing to do. All partners believe it is important to be transparent about their intentions – both ahead of and during the negotiations.”

And Joe Anderson, elected mayor of Liverpool: “I don’t see why anyone would want to keep it secret.”

Well, Joe, West Midlands CA unmistakeably want to – and, moreover, to outsource responsibility for doing so. Its spokesperson (anonymous) claimed:

We’re not allowed to release the documents. The Treasury has told us we cannot publish it.

Which a Treasury spokeswoman (equally anonymous) promptly denied:

Regions are free to decide whether they want to publish the documents or not. We haven’t told anybody not to go public with the bid.

Interesting, eh? Though not the only non-publisher, the West Midlands does seem to be the only CA suggested by the Treasury to be ‘bending the truth’.

Tempting though it is to speculate about who’s the bigger liar, I’m more concerned – here, anyway – with the recent public complaint by Birmingham City Council Chief Executive Mark Rogers that he was “fed up of being treated [by central government] like a child, when the organisation I work for and the communities we serve are not children.”

So why, Mr Rogers, are you allowing the WMCA, a body in which you play a leading role, to keep us in the dark in a way that would be insulting even if we were children?

Cover image: Greater Manchester Referendum – Campaign for Democratic Devolution


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