John Blundell talks to two of the main architects of English devolution: has it worked and what comes next? (and yes, some Brexit too)

There are few people that change the economic and political landscape of a country and fewer still that have done it from the political confines of a northern town hall. Sir Howard Bernstein, the former chief executive of Manchester City Council, and Mike Emmerich, the previous chief executive of New Economy Manchester, have achieved just this and are heralded by many to be two of the main architects of English devolution.

It was a real coup, Manchester's devolution deal, but has it worked? 

There was only one way to find out, go and ask the people who were in the room when George Osbourne, ex-chancellor turned trainee journalist, promised the deal. Bernstein and Emmerich.

Would the boom have happened anyway? No would it buggery!

Why did we need devolution in the first place?

Sir Howard Bernstein: "We have been operating in the most centralised system of government in the western world. If we are going to shape places that are attractive to investors, with the quality of public services which are designed to empower people to achieve their full potential, it is absolutely clear that is not going to happen with a centralised system of government."

Mike Emmerich: "I grew up with Lord Peter Smith leading from Wigan, Sir Richard Leese and Howard leading in the city, a bunch of others as well, but that wasn’t to go on forever and it was about turning what the city region had learned into a governance structure that was fit for the long term."

So you got what you wanted…. 

SHB: "We didn’t."

Howard Bernstein Mike Emmerich Jpg
Devo-Architects: Mike Emmerich and Sir Howard Bernstein

Well, it was a great coup, what was achieved….

SHB: "But we didn’t get what we wanted, we would have liked a lot more on skills… in fact… the lot!" [laughs] 

ME: "This is how the British state works: set institutions up a bit weaker than they need, see if they work and if they do then build on them. It’s an evolution in devolution."

SHB: "I think it also shows the difference George Osborne made. It required somebody with the significant and highly credible leadership capabilities of Osborne at the highest level of government to drive it through."

We had a track record and a narrative, but it still required that government official?

SHB: "Without a doubt. Mike and I almost lived down in London for three or four months because there were intensive discussions."

All this investment in science, we need to see some payback for that.

What difference does devolution actually make to the average Manc sat at home?

SHB: "If you take health social care as an example, at the time we looked at this not just as a mechanism to fix hospitals, even though some would argue they do need fixing, but fundamentally to create new opportunities for developing early help and early intervention offers in different neighbourhoods."

ME: "I have worked a lot with my company for Andy Street in the West Midlands, James Palmer in Cambridge, people in the North East and elsewhere, and the level of ambition across conurbations that was always the hallmark of Greater Manchester is now being felt in all those places."

Manchester is booming. Would this not have happened anyway?

SHB: "No, would it buggery."

But what is it that has made the change?

SHB: "I think it is devolution of a different type. Spinningfields is a very, very good example of the intelligent and sophisticated civic leadership that has characterised this city for a long time. This is why, in my view, you are seeing so many cranes, not because we sat and waited for the market to decide to do A, B and C."

George Osborne 2
George Osborne drove English devolution forward before stepping down as chancellor in 2016

Given it all rests on civic leadership, the Factory, which was announced at the same time as devolution, is set to be late and £19m over budget. What signal does that send? You were quoted, Sir Howard, as saying you were going to make it happen by ‘kicking arses’.

SHB: "They said up to nineteen million..."

But why has this happened?

SHB: "Because I left! [laughs]. No, it’s not fair for me to comment, I can’t say anything more than what Richard (Leese, council leader) has already put out."

Will the extra £19m still be worth it?

SHB: "There is no doubt at all that this will be a transformative project for Manchester in the long term."

ME: "I’m taking it as read that they are going to create a wonderful building, but I am more interested in what goes on inside it, and I haven’t seen much of that yet. As big a fan as I am of MIF (Manchester International Festival will manage The Factory), I sometimes wonder if the balance of art is completely accessible to people, and whether avant-garde for the sake of it is going to be right."

The Factory New Cgi
The Factory is now set to be years late and well over budget ("It's because I left.")

What is the next big thing for Manchester?

ME: "I think it will be more of the same. I think we must not underestimate what is going on here…"

SHB: "It isn’t either or, it is about people, how do we improve our capacity? How do we improve our productivity? These are the key drivers of the Manchester story for 25 years and that will remain the same."

Where is Manchester’s growth going to come from? 

SHB: "From the things we have been investing in; science, innovation, technology, creative industries..."   

ME: "We are still about 20% lower in terms of GVA than the UK average, that's a missing £10 billion per year, and still only 1% of the GVA is in science. As somebody who lives here and cares about the place, all the investment that has gone into science here, we need to see some payback for that."

SHB: "I completely agree. We have been very good in graphene, one example of advanced materials around innovation and new discoveries, but this country has not been good at translating that into commercial activity. We must become more adept at doing that." 

Henry Royce Institute
"We need to see payback" - construction began on Manchester's £105m Henry Royce Institute in January 2018

All of this needs funding, so what are our future sources of income?

SHB: "There needs to be much greater fiscal devolution. All we ever see and hear about is the Brexit withdrawal agreement. No political party is giving a very clear vision about what this country, over the next ten years, is going to look like. Because if they did consider the role of democratically accountable institutions - like we have here in Greater Manchester under Richard and Andy (Burnham, mayor) - they would be talking a lot more about not just devolution of functions but also the devolution of real fiscal responsibility in order for us to take more control over our own destiny."

ME: "That is one of the benefits of devolution. We are starting to see some leadership on these issues, we could certainly see some more, but it is improving as all the big cities have Mayors now and they are making the argument that 'we want to see what the deal is going to look like'."

SHB: "If we are just transferring sovereignty and power from Strasbourg to Westminster, well what is the point? How is that impacting the people who expressed very clear views on what they wanted?"

Manchester Town Hall
Manchester Town Hall: "Look at what we as a city have done"

How detrimental are we talking? How bad will Brexit be for Manchester? 

ME: "We just don’t know, what even is Brexit, can you tell me?"

SHB: "One thing I can be clear about, it’s not going to be good news."

ME: "Especially if it is followed by a longer period of uncertainty."

SHB: "I was watching TV last night; we need more clarity about our long-term trading relationship and economic partnership with Europe. You can express considerable surprise that after two and a half years we haven’t got there yet."

ME: "I have been around Greater Manchester a lot the last few weeks and look at Salford Quays and the BBC, look at the Co-op building and others and you see national ambition, international ambition, in what we as a city have done. Howard’s point is right, for too long we have had a country that has not thought properly about what it wants its big cities and their regional hinterlands to be. This is a debate we should have been having for the past 30 years, one we could have done from within the EU. We need to do it now."

Is it not that cities should decide this for themselves, rather than wait for the country to decide on behalf of the city?

ME: "Well we did!"

SHB: "We have done that."

John Blundell is a Labour councillor for Smallbridge and Firgrove and theCabinet Member for Regeneration, Business, Skills & Employment on Rochdale Council. He is a graduate of Economics from the University of Manchester and was elected to Rochdale Council at just 20 years old.