Devolution has the potential to be “a real force in social, economic and environmental change”, but there are fatal flaws in the government’s current plan for Devo Manc says Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.
Speaking at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) annual lecture in Manchester, entitled ‘What Can Devolution Do’, Bennett was scathing of her assessment of the current devolution experiment in Greater Manchester.
“There is a clear danger, indeed likelihood given the current arrangements of Devo Manc, that centralised, ill-informed, ill-directed decision-making from London will be replaced by ill-informed, centralised ill-directed decision-making in central Manchester,” she said.
Bennett said a centralised authority in Manchester might in practice be no more accessible to a resident in a Manchester suburb than a distant authority in central London. “Power should flow upwards from the people. Nothing should be done centrally if it can be done better, or equally well, locally.”
She said Devo Manc was nothing more than the result of confidential bargains between the Treasury and a small group of local dealmakers, and that responsibility for health and social care services had been handed over without anything like the funds needed to pay to meet those responsibilities.
The Green Party has been calling for a referendum on each devolution deal across the country, but these have so far been rejected. Added Bennett: “It is worth thinking back on the Scottish referendum where we saw a level of engagement and excitement about politics quite unlike anything we have seen for many decades. What the process of creating devolved institutions should look like is a bottom-up, carefully considered process of deliberation by all of those affected. The development of the structure, and the decisions about the size and the scope of each level of devolution, should be made democratically with a majority of citizens engaged in the process.”
However Bennett conceded that the very fact that we were talking about devolution meant we could start the process of asking questions, of thinking new models, and of developing new processes in politics. “That is exciting, important and necessary. There are really exciting ideas around devolution. For instance, think about how a devolved authority might support local businesses, support local purchasing. A powerful devolved authority could protect and retain key employers.”
Mick Moran, Professor at Government, People, Management and Organisations Research at Alliance Manchester Business School, told the event that devolution was an opportunity, whatever its drawbacks. “The present recipe for devolution in Manchester is the wrong recipe, but it is better that we have devolution done the wrong way than not done at all. From experience, one thing we know about devolution is that it is not a settlement. It settles nothing and unleashes all kinds of forces which are unforeseen. Whatever devolution looks like in 15 years, it will not look like it does today.”
Kevin Morgan, Professor of Governance and Development at Cardiff University, said devolution was like a curate’s egg. “It does create opportunities for a more democratic decision-making process and it can make policy outcomes more tangible and better attuned to local circumstances, so that is a prize worth going for. But devolution is also a never-ending dialogue. While devolution is about acquiring powers, the next step is to have the confidence and competence to deploy those powers to make a difference, and that is the key challenge for Manchester as elsewhere.”