The government have recently announced the passing of responsibility for the £6 billion of NHS money spent in the Greater Manchester area to a consortium of ten local councils. This is in addition to the creation of a Mayor for Greater Manchester and the devolved powers granted to Greater Manchester in November which are intended to place around £1 billion in the same local government hands by 2019 to administer new powers over transport, house building, skills training and the police (the Mayor will replace the police commissioner). Contrary to some reports The Mayor will not have formal responsibility for the NHS and Care budget spending, but will probably exert some unofficial influence in those areas.
Greater Manchester is to have an elected mayor foisted upon it despite voted against having one in 2012 with the Tory minister responsible Grant Shapps stating at the time of the referendum that “People should have the right to decide how they are governed in their local area. The whole point is to give people a say. No-one is forcing mayors on anyone.” That one is being imposed now tells you all you need to know about the real attitude of the coalition government and their commitment to local democracy. It is a case of you can vote anyway you like provided we approve of your choice. Shades of the EU’s way with referenda which do not go their way.
All of this has got nothing to do with improving local services and everything to do with fudging the issue of devolution in England. Our political elite are utterly determined that England will not have a Parliament or government to represent her national interests. Labour and the LibDems are reliant on Welsh and Scots MPs for a significant number of their Commons seats and are concerned that an English Parliament and government could seriously upset the UK political apple-cart by forcing the reduction of the per capita Treasury funding for Scotland, Wales and N Ireland, for example, by reducing it to the per capita funding for England (that would take around £16 billion a year away from the Celtic Fringe at present).
This shifting of powers to an English region is the beginning of a process which all three major Westminster parties in one form or another all support. The policy has two great advantages for the Tories, Labour and LibDems. It allows them to claim however absurdly that the imbalance in the UK devolution settlement has been addressed and creates political institutions which once granted would be very difficult to abolish.
The mere existence of regional political institutions with differing powers would be a great barrier to an English Parliament and government. Such devolution would create a patchwork of differing powers and provide a ready-made argument for why England should not have her own Parliament, namely, that an English Parliament would not be able to legislate on a great swathe of policies because so much had been devolved to the regions and so varied are the different devolved powers that no meaningful national legislation on those policies would be possible.
Apart from the Balkanising effect on England, there are the practical effects which would be obnoxious. Because it would be impossible to have such devolution throughout the country so inevitably differences in service offered and the rules under which it is offered would arise. The post-code lottery already afflicting much of public service, especially in NHS provision, would be greatly amplified. There would also be an ugly battle for resources by different regions.
There is a further good practical reason why such devolution is wrong-headed: the quality of both local politicians and their senior officers is generally poor. If anyone doubts this go and attend a few local council meetings and committees. They simply would not be up to the job of administering such responsibilities. If local authorities whether singly or in concert as is proposed in Manchester are given extensive new borrowing powers there is every chance they will behave recklessly and run up debts which they could not service and central government would have to bail them out. Spain is a gruesome example of such misbehaviour by devolved governments.
The fact that it is Greater Manchester which is receiving the extra powers rather than individual councils or even just the councils for the city of Manchester suggests that what is being aimed at is a surreptitious resurrection of the goal of Balkanising England which was so roundly rejected in 2004 under Blair’s premiership.
Regional bodies such as those proposed for Greater Manchester will have some ostensible democratic respectability because their members will be drawn from elected councils. But this democratic respectability will be specious if there is a Mayor of Greater Manchester who is not attached to any council heading the consortium. Individual councillors from each council will have little if any influence because you can bet the Mayor will form a council of the leaders of the component councils which will proceed to stitch up deals that are then presented as a fait accompli to the individual councillors. Anyone who has had experience of a council which has adopted the “cabinet” system will be only too well aware of how councillors who are not part of the cabinet are left virtually powerless to affect any council policy or behaviour because they are effectively excluded from decision making.
Scottish Welsh and Northern Irish politicians will welcome such devolution within England because it lessens the opportunity for England to exert its natural power in the Union by making a national voice for England less likely. However, they could find it a wrong-headed move if English regions start demanding some of the additional exchequer funding over and above that provided to England that the Celts currently receive.
These new powers for Manchester are not a done deal because the Tory Party may well not be in power after the General Election in May. Certainly in the case of the devolution of NHS power Labour have made it clear that they do not want it to happen with the Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham rejecting the NHS Proposal viz:
“If I was health secretary I wouldn’t be offering this deal.”
“My worry is having a ‘swiss cheese’ effect in the NHS whereby cities are opting out.”
“This deal is only being offered to certain parts of the country too and there’s a real concern that it could cause a two-tier service and challenge the notion of a National Health Service.”
What is proposed for Manchester is the thin end of the Balkanising of England wedge. It needs to be opposed on principle.