Lessons from the Greater Manchester experiment

In the first of three essays LGiU is publishing on the future of local government, Andrew Walker discusses the Greater Manchester experiment in devolution, lessons learned so far and challenges that remain.

The UK is going through a period of major change. It is not all about Brexit, however. There is a significant development in the country's governance, as new institutional structures have recently been established in some English city-regions, led by directly elected metro mayors.

Greater Manchester was the first city-region to make a deal with the government to establish just such a combined authority, bringing a range of powers down to the local level and establishing an elected mayoral office. It is widely recognised as the "furthest ahead" of the city regions, with the longest track record, and it is in many ways the pattern that others will try to follow.

It is still early days and certainly too early to judge properly the success of the mayoral combined authority model. Indeed, it is still an open question as to how we might go about judging that success. But two years down the line, and a few months after the mayoral election, what lessons can we take from this experiment in governance?

As the mayor grows into this new role and as the combined authority beds in as an institution, it is an opportune moment to take stock of how we got here, where we might be heading and what lessons we can learn for democracy and devolution elsewhere in the UK.

Drawing on interviews with leading figures in Greater Manchester local government, conducted for my PhD research with LGiU and Queen Mary, University of London, this article will assess the progress and prospects of devolution in Greater Manchester.

Some key lessons stand out so far, which will be of interest to other areas pursuing local devolution:

1. Build a strong narrative about the place.

2. Take a pragmatic approach to collaboration, compromise and partnership. You don't have to solve everything at once.

3. Gather good quality evidence and deploy it effectively with the right infrastructure and institutional support.

Greater Manchester has been particularly adept in its use of evidence, both in policy design and backing up the demands it makes of central government. The local leadership has also made a strong impression in terms of the cohesive, collaborative face it presents to the outside world. This is a conscious and pragmatic decision that builds on a long historical narrative, a "Greater Manchester story", enabling dialogue with central government and helping to forge a political identity.

As well as these lessons, interesting challenges remain, particularly in terms of how citizens relate to the combined authority and how the institutions develop in democratic relation to those citizens. This is particularly pertinent given that we are yet to see how mayoral soft power will function in combined authorities.

The Deal

In November 2014 a picture was released of the leaders of the ten boroughs in Greater Manchester, eight of whom were Labour party politicians, signing a deal with George Osborne, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It was a political coup on many fronts and signalled a sea change in English governance.

The deal was the first of a number of devolution deals that were agreed between central and local government. "Balanced economic growth" across the country was the aim and combined authorities in city regions were to be given the tools and the incentives to promote business activity outside London. The deals also devolved powers over transport, infrastructure and skills development and there was, subsequently, a focus on public service reform. Further announcements were made following the initial deal and soon powers over housing and spatial planning began to emerge, followed in early 2015 by the somewhat unexpected (to those outside Manchester or the Treasury) announcement that Greater Manchester is to be responsible for its own £6bn health and social care budget.

In return for this increase in collective control of policy and spending at the local level, it was agreed that the Combined Authority would be led by a mayor, directly elected by the people of Greater Manchester.

The expansion of directly elected mayoral offices is one of the most significant recent developments in the structure of governance of the UK. The first mayor of London was elected in 2000, and the model has spread slowly but surely to other cities across the country, with varying powers, roles and responsibilities attached.

This May there were elections in six English city-regions for directly elected metro mayors. Andy Burnham won the contest in Greater Manchester, based on a larger turnout than many anticipated. Within a month it was his role to lead the civic response to the bomb attack on the Manchester Arena. Shortly after his election he made a range of announcements, including policy portfolios to cabinet members, signalled his intention to tackle homelessness, not in his remit as mayor, and proposed a redraft of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework. He has also released several high profile statements, including one with his Labour colleague in the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, criticising the government's decision to build Crossrail 2 in London, while dragging its feet over transport infrastructure in the north.

This is, perhaps, just what we should expect from such a high profile civic leader with a democratic mandate from a large population.

Mayoral roles and responsibilities are fairly clearly defined and circumscribed in legislation and the contractual arrangements with government, but there are still plenty of unknowns within what is a novel form of governance and power in the UK.

A collaboration narrative

Tram in central Manchester, early 1990s (The Greater Manchester Transport Museum)

The common background in discussions of Greater Manchester is the long history of partnership and collaboration between the ten boroughs, which puts it a long way ahead of other parts of the country. This is a neat narrative that papers over some of the cracks and ignores some of the tensions.

Narratives are important, of course, and their impact can be profound. When people in Greater Manchester speak about what is happening there, it is immediately apparent that this story means something to them, that it set them apart and has helped them to forge a specific political culture.

The devolution deal is only the latest episode in a much longer story of collaboration in Greater Manchester. "Integration" has a long history in the area, going all the way back to James Niven who, as Medical Health Officer in Oldham in 1886, and Manchester in 1922, pioneered a strong public health programme linking urban housing and employment. By the 1930s Manchester and Lancashire County Council were regarded as the leading lights in health and social care integration. They provided an example for many other local authorities and health organisations in how to work together and join their services.

Graham Stringer's pragmatism in the 1980s is another part of this narrative. As leader of Manchester City Council he helped move it and its neighbouring authorities away from outright opposition towards central government. Instead the councils sought a more collaborative relationship with each other and a more productive one with Westminster.

The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) was set up around this time to provide institutional space for cooperation across local authority boundaries, coordinating important services, such as fire and rescue, police and public transport. The districts' co-ownership of Manchester Airport and its related assets undoubtedly encouraged a sense of collective enterprise and shared purpose, manifested in the Metrolink tram system, a major infrastructure project built in the early 1990s, followed by the joint bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games.

The signal success of this strategy was the presentation and acceptance of "Manchester exceptionalism" within influential Whitehall circles. The city’s economic size, and strong cultural identity have been heavily promoted in order to enable Manchester to establish it as the the principal devolution experiment.

But it wasn't all about narrative. Hard evidence has been a vital ingredient of success.


Claims have been made that Greater Manchester is a world-leading "evidence based city". The history of the Combined Authority so far seems to back that up. But it is instructive to look at how evidence is used and deployed once it is gathered.

The case for Devo Manc played directly into the government's desire for economic growth. It was a case built on the Manchester Independent Economic Review (MIER), a comprehensive document of evidence, which, in 2009 identified a large disparity in terms of economic growth between Manchester and the South East.

In a review of the MIER process, Alan Harding and John Holden say that key to their success was ensuring that there is the right infrastructure and capacity to use evidence effectively. Authorities need the skills to understand evidence and it needs to be deployed properly into service design. This requires technical knowledge, but crucially it also relies on support from across the relevant institutions:

"Create demand for evidence, don't just create evidence. In order for evidence to be influential it needs to be seen as robust and useful by those best able to exert influence on policy."

The MIER found that Greater Manchester’s overall productivity is lower than would be expected from a city of its size. Housing, transport and infrastructure are contributing factors, but the lack of skills suited to a highly productive knowledge economy was identified as one of the biggest impediments.

The proposal GM’s leaders made was to address these disparities by transferring significant powers to the right scale. According to one council leader, Greater Manchester was able to make a convincing, evidence-based case “that there’s an appropriate level within which certain decisions need to be made”, and that is the city-region level.

Fewer powers were granted to the combined authority than the ten leaders initially asked for, as central government held back control in certain key areas. The authority only has control over the skills budget relating to adults over 19 years old, for example. This restricts what they can do in early years. 

By far the largest (in monetary terms) and arguably the most radical shift in governance is in health and social care. In April 2016 control over the integrated £6bn health and social care budget for the Greater Manchester was transferred to the local level, with the twin aims of improving health outcomes for the population of population, and reducing health inequalities.

The scale of this challenge cannot be overlooked. The “experiment” in Greater Manchester involves combining these two crucial services, while managing a £2bn shortfall in the budget. If it is successful it will be nationally, perhaps internationally, significant and is likely to provide a framework for future service reform across the country.

The new arrangements in health and social care have been operational since April 2016. The Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership Board (GMHSPB) was established with the aim of producing a joint health and social care strategy for the city. Through these structures, it is argued that devolution offers the potential for developing new forms of governance, which move beyond the integration just of health and social care. It also holds the potential to design social policy, public policy and health policy together, so that goals and decisions are shared across organisational and institutional boundaries.

But that has been one of the stories of the Greater Manchester experience.

Pragmatism and Compromise

Churchgate House, the new home of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Working in partnership across the city has by no means eliminated all conflict. A senior policy officer told me:

"The narrative about collaboration and partnership in Manchester is much stronger in retrospect than it seemed at the time. Agreement across 10 boroughs is hard."

One of the key lessons other areas might take away from Greater Manchester's experience is the pragmatism displayed by the leaders and senior figures, who have presented a united front in their negotiations with government and a common voice on some of most important issues that affect the city.

There is a real effort to work collaboratively, between the boroughs and with the Combined Authority. Tensions will inevitably arise at certain points because many of the issues are contentious and political. The plans to fix them require careful judgement as well technical expertise and evidence. In relation to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework a senior policy officer told me:

"I suppose people will perceive it as being a plan that the Combined Authority are overseeing and so there will be some tensions with that. There will be tensions because each individual local authority has got to sign it off. There will be tensions because each individual local authority will come under pressure from its residents in relation to some of the proposals in it. And I think that will be interesting to see how that all plays out."

Democracy can help to provide the institutional mechanisms to manage this disagreement and conflict. What distinguishes the approach in Manchester from a “Westminster approach” is that intention to manage tensions through dialogue and collaboration across the conurbation. As with democratic institutions everywhere, this story is still unfolding in Greater Manchester.

Bringing Citizens Back In

While it is hoped that there will be a stronger democratic link between institutions and people in Greater Manchester, this will take time to forge. Recognising this challenge, another officer told me:

"I think it's a work in progress, it doesn’t follow as night follows day that if you devolve powers to a local level that people automatically feel more connected to it. You need to understand how local government does connect with its citizens, and so on, that’s an issue for the future."

The leaders have been criticised for the level of public consultation and democratic engagement in the devolution process so far. Imposition of the mayoral model, in particular, has received a great deal of attention, as has the lack of transparency with which the parameters of the deal have been decided.

But bringing in the citizens of Greater Manchester is essential, not merely a "nice to have" after the institutions are built and policies designed. Devolution alone will not automatically achieve the goals in health, social care, skills, economic growth and housing, unless it is accompanied by a qualitative change in the way the state functions locally, understanding and working with citizens.

The experiment taking place in Greater Manchester is incubating innovative new approaches to tackle this issue, working with the community in different, nuanced ways. With added resources, capacity and institutional heft, not to mention support from a figurehead like the directly elected mayor, groundbreaking programmes that already exist in individual boroughs can be scaled up and learned from. In some parts of the conurbation (Oldham and Wigan spring to mind) this support is directed towards projects and initiatives run by the community. A senior policy officer said:

"It is trying not to institutionalise good stuff that communities are doing. We are aware that the council can be a bit of a dead hand at times. Our role is often to support and encourage."

This leads, however, to yet another crucial part of this story, in the grey areas that the mayor and the institutions will begin to operate in and the soft power they wield. We have yet to see these play out.

Soft Power?

Mayors with a democratic mandate tend have an impact beyond the institutional structures within which they operate. Power and influence can spread through governance networks and civil society throughout the urban area more generally, into communities and business. As leaders of place mayors can become symbols beyond their cities and even beyond national borders. But they can also steer and shape policy in subtle and less subtle ways. One of the first public statements Andy Burnham made after becoming mayor was about reducing homelessness in Greater Manchester, which is not within his remit. It was central to his campaign and he has set up a fund, contributing a portion of his own salary. This is the exercise of power by other means.

Though in Greater Manchester and other city-regions these powers are curtailed by a cabinet system, it is possible that the influence, profile and mandate invested in one individual through direct election will overshadow the collective. The mayor's power will be felt through the informal and soft power that their popular mandate brings, as much as through official institutional and circumscribed forms of hierarchy. This is particularly so as part of a mayors role as figurehead is interacting with other parts of government, the public sector and the private sector, for which there are no formal institutional parameters.

Personality, individual strengths, and a particular set of political skills will be important. But so will institutional capacity. These can also seep out beyond strictly defined parameters. GMCA’s capacity has markedly increased since the forging the deal and since New Economy, the research organisation that carried out the Independent Economic Review, was brought in house. It now functions largely as a policy and strategy unit for the combined authority, with an expanding research agenda driven by the political leadership. Staff are drawn in and seconded from the other Greater Manchester boroughs, the University, and even the Treasury and Whitehall. It does impressive work. But it is also an interesting case study in how institutions can develop a logic that no individual or group strictly controls.

Given the importance of evidence in the Greater Manchester story, the role of New Economy as the evidence machine is compelling.

Looking to the future...

Challenges lie ahead, naturally. Not least in the complex and strained relationship that persists between central and local government. One borough leader told me "there will be people within government, both within the civil service and certain members of Parliament who are very happy with the status quo of being a very centralised country where it comes out from Whitehall and Westminster, who will be looking for a reason for this not to work."

The Greater Manchester experiment will rise or fall on how well it is led. Complex questions can be addressed by experts, but it is often straightforward ones that require leadership and judgement. Greater Manchester has built up an impressive track record in gathering and deploying evidence and deploying expertise to address complex questions with innovative, collaborative organisational forms. This must be one of the key lessons that others can draw from the Greater Manchester experience so far.

But the answers it could provide for some bigger challenges around the future of local democracy, around the deficit of trust in public institutions, and around new forms of populism and political identity, will depend largely on the decisions made by leaders to deploy the evidence and forge successful democratic partnerships with the citizens of Greater Manchester.

It is in these areas, as much as the service reform goals, that the GM model could radically challenge the current state of affairs in how the country is governed.

Central government is almost entirely occupied with Brexit, while very little guidance or vision seems to be emanating from DCLG at present. This creates difficulties for local government, but it might also be an opportunity to demonstrate local capacity and ingenuity.

The Greater Manchester experience so far may provide some guidance. It is important to structure a narrative about local places, to build strong, pragmatic links across institutional boundaries in the long-term interest, and to combine intelligent use of evidence with strong democratic principles.