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Talking about devolution

As Manchester’s devolution drive gains further momentum, academics from across Alliance MBS took part in a major conference this week exploring what a devolved future for the city might look like in years to come – and how to achieve it.

The Inclusive Devolved Futures conference, hosted by the University of Manchester’s Devo Manc hub, brought together academics, activists, consultants, executives, lobbyists, politicians and researchers interested in the field.

Health

In terms of health and social care devolution, Kieran Walshe, Professor of Health Policy and Management, said the past two years had seen a big effort to build a lot of institutional architecture around devolution such as with the creation of a strategic partnership board and a host of groups covering priorities such as pathology, pharmacy, and acute service reconfiguration.

“They have been an important investment in getting lots of people from different organisations around the table and engaged in trying to work collectively,” he said. “That is a reversal of at least 20 years of policy that has headed in the opposite direction towards competition, autonomy and fragmentation.”

Economy

Julie Froud, Professor of Financial Innovation, spoke about the need to rethink industrial and economic policy and focus more on the ‘foundational’ economy and the importance of sectors such as housing, transport, care, energy and food supply. “These are sectors which make a huge difference to daily lives,” she added.

She also stressed how the Greater Manchester economy was still dominated by small and micro firms, with three-quarters of businesses employing between 0 and 4 people. “When we think about the economy we think about big business, but the typical firm is a small or micro enterprise and policy simply doesn’t engage with our economy as it is.”

Transport

Andrew McMeekin, Professor of Innovation, talked about the importance of better integrating Greater Manchester’s transport network and the need for a radical rethink of the city’s transport strategy.

For instance he said reforming the city’s much-criticised bus infrastructure was a real opportunity. “This might be mundane compared to other more exciting transport technologies, but it is most likely to solve mobility problems of people living across the whole of Greater Manchester. The free market experiment in the bus market has failed and there is a big need for new integrated approach to governance to overcome current fragmented arrangements.”

The transport debate was chaired by his colleague Dr Michael Hodson from the Sustainable Consumption Institute. He added: “The key question that the session addressed was what will the future of transport in Greater Manchester look like in the coming decades. Implicit in this was who will decide how that looks. The session also discussed the wide ranging challenges facing Greater Manchester’s transport system and often the tensions between them, such as between the priority of addressing congestion in the transport system and the wider Greater Manchester priority of promoting growth.”

Dialogue

The conference also heard from Professor Alan Harding from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority who talked about the importance of academics working with city leaders to shape the devolution debate.

“It is about trying to open up a dialogue and create spaces where the academic community are interested in the future of the city region. For instance the local industrial strategy is just one area where Greater Manchester would benefit from academic input.”

Mike Blackburn from Greater Manchester Local Economic Partnership said there was a need to be bold in the whole approach to devolution.

“We either bring the civil service in London with us or do it despite the civil service. At the moment the civil service feels like an anchor holding us back. We need to be bold, setting our own strategic objectives and ensuring that the targets we set are not incongruous. We cannot play at this project, this has to be life-changing for people in a hugely positive way.”

*The conference also saw the launch of a collection of essays on Greater Manchester devolution. As well as contributions from Professor McMeekin and Dr Hodson, the collection also features a commentary on transport from Professor Graham Winch of Alliance MBS.