by Steven Durrant

If you live outside Greater Manchester you may think that plans to give more powers to the Greater Manchester area, known as “Devomanc”, won’t affect much outside the 10 boroughs that make up the GMCA (Greater Manchester Combined Authority).

This would be a mistake. Manchester has long been a guinea pig for grand schemes and this looks no different. Whatever the establishment get away with in Manchester they will probably seek to inflict elsewhere, with plans for this template to be applied across many parts of England.

A mysterious thing happened not long before last year’s general election. The regional elite of the Labour dominated establishment colluded with the Tory Westminster elite and announced the Devomanc plans with no forewarning. These 2 powerful factions, who for public show at least, are fierce rivals, had cooked up an enormous scheme in secret. First responses among the commentariat tended to the view that this was little short of genius (an odd attitude they have toward just about anything associated with George Osborne, a key figure in this policy.) 

Devolution tends to be music to the ears of most progressives, and the UK is woefully capital centric in political and economic terms compared to most European countries. So what could be amiss?

Well, you might think that a spirit of genuine local democracy would involve consulting local people, rather than what actually happened, where even elected councillors were left in the dark.

This is what the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee say has happened, citing “very significant” lack of public engagement over a series of “devolution deals” struck between the Government and various English cities and regions.

“For devolution to take root and fulfil its aims, it needs to involve and engage the people it is designed to benefit. There has been a consistent very significant lack of public consultation, engagement and communication at all stages of the deal-making process.”

Here is an earlier piece of local independent journalism citing very similar concerns. 

Greater Manchester’s interim mayor, Tony Lloyd has made similar noises about the need for transparency etc. but what this may add up to on his part remains mostly to be seen, having acquired even that position in a less than fully transparent fashion himself:

“There were no public debates or hustings. The electorate consisted of ten people, the leaders of the local authorities that comprise Greater Manchester. After two hours of wrangling Lloyd was appointed to the post over Wigan’s leader, Lord Smith. If you wanted the antithesis of democracy and transparency, this was it.”

Given that normal respect for democracy seems to have been arrogantly side-lined, could there be a more dubious motivation to this scheme than the glorious surface vision? (remembering again the spectre of Osborne in this) 

Well, much of the running of our NHS is to be passed to the GMCA. It’s no secret that the direction of travel the Tories are taking with our NHS is toward privatisation. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt co-authored a book calling for a private health insurance model, and there are many strong connections between the party and the private health sector.

Therefore, it’s only judicious to conclude that much of the transition of power will be geared toward facilitating parcelling off our health service to privateers. 

Devomanc will also see greater local powers to oversee social care and further education, both areas of provision that have seen funding dramatically slashed since 2010, a £2bn deficit is predicted for health and social care over the next 5 years.

This press release from Greater Manchester Referendum Campaign asks “Will Greater Manchester devolved NHS follow Jeremy Hunt and impose Contract on Junior Doctors?”

“Further and Adult Education have both been brutally cut since 2010, again it seems that Westminster is now keen for others to pick up the pieces for their attacks on aspiration. The cuts highlighed in this article are only the latest round.”

It’s easy to see the appeal that more powers will have for local and regional political bigwigs, and there was some impetus for Devomanc from Howard Bernstein, Chief Exec of Manchester Council (unelected). But there is a big risk that power will move upward (from ward and borough level toward what are new sub-regions) as downwards from Westminster. 

In any case, the lack of consultation and public information is highly disturbing. This article opens by saying you may have heard of these plans, but you’d probably be in the minority, and knowledge of detail is either down to a small number of political geeks and/or filtered through establishment media, with repeated mantras in tow. 

One such mantra – “Northern Powerhouse” – became a go-to sound-bite for every flailing Tory candidate in the region during the General Election campaign. The visit of Chinese state officials late last year was incorporated into the propaganda agenda around “Northern Powerhouse”, with local and regional media positively glowing at the prospect of their patch being taken seriously by the new poster boy of global capitalism.

Yet Westminster government has a track record of grandiose promises not living up to much. Remember “The Vow” promised to Scottish people just before the Independence Referendum, when it looked like they might vote to leave the UK?  18 months later, nothing much has come of it.

The promised rail electrification from Sheffield to Manchester was binned soon after the General Election, and the Headquarters of the Northern Powerhouse project were recently moved from Sheffield to er…London at the behest of a company based in the capital. 

Even the mainstream Manchester Evening News have caught on, with this very good recent piece by Jennifer Williams.

It is not the aim of this piece to be relentlessly negative about devolution per se, merely sceptical of the detail and motives behind this model.

There are better visions possible, such as that planned by The Greater Manchester Referendum Campaign for a Peoples Plan based on genuine consultation, a genuine challenge to the contradictory nature of a plan for more “democracy” that has been imposed with such scant regard for democracy. You can find out more at their Facebook page.

There is a strong impression that this Tory government have been co opting and manipulating progressive concepts to their own end, leeching off the credibility of those concepts while twisting them to very different agendas. This is what happened when they announced the supposed “living wage”, and more recently their attempts at EU “reform”. There’s even more evidence to suggest just as cynical a misuse of “devolution”. People in all English regions / sub regions need to be on guard, with spin-detectors set to 11.