Over the last few months, much has been made of George Osborne’s plans to devolve a significant amount of power from Westminster to Manchester. Osborne described ‘devo-Manc’ as a ‘massive moment’ while Labour claims that the Tories are years late to the devolution party. Meanwhile, campaigning and community groups across Manchester are up in arms, rightly arguing that the public have had no say in the matter, and it’s not clear that Mancunians are even in favour of the plans.
What is certainhowever is that from 2017, Greater Manchester will have a directly elected Mayor who, alongside the GMCA, will have unprecedented new powers. This includes control over transport (with a single bus franchise and oyster-style ticket systems planned), a £300m housing fund, policing and crime, apprenticeships and college educations, and a further say in business and welfare.
Central to this devolution is a £6bn health and social care budget, with Manchester taking full control of the NHS in the region. Amidst worries of creating a fractured, two-tier health system and at the lack of public consultation, it is clear that this is a groundbreaking change. Or is it?
Whilst the history of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is longer and better documented, devolution in England was a recurring issue throughout the 20th century. The issue was first raised in Parliament in 1912 by a future prime minister: then MP for Dundee, Winston Churchill proposed federal system of government, with full devolution to English regions. This proposal fell flat, but the issue was raised again in 1969 and 1973, as two royal commissions explored various forms of the idea.
It wasn’t until the ‘90s that any plans were put into action, with John Major’s government creating 10 regional Government Offices in the last few months of his administration. These were merely the local arm of government offices, and were charged with the regional implementation of national policy.
It was under Blair, however, that devolved regional governments began to take a direction of their own. Implemented from 1998, the nine Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were autonomous bodies designed to grow regional economies,creating £1 of growth for the local economy for every £1 of public spending, with this figure estimated to rise to £4.50 upon the maturing of long-term investments and infrastructure.
RDAs were eventually scrapped in 2010 as the Coalition sought to drastically reduce government spending, but the legacy of devolution in England endures with the Greater London Authority, created following the 1998 referenda. This comprises of an elected assembly and Mayor, the latter of which has become a very significant player in British politics.