Whenever I meet a fellow Northerner these days, the conversation frequently turns to Manchester and devolution. We’re agreed that we’ve never known a sustained, serious call for self-rule. There’s been plenty of grumbling (people from the North of England love to have a good moan) about Westminster and the power it holds over distant lives. But self-determination? Never.
Contrary to what Southerners might think, the North is not a separate country. It has its dialects (but which part of Britain doesn’t?), customs, tastes and humour. However, it’s not Scotland, with a history of nationalist bloodshed, own culture, and fairly definable borders. There’s not been popular pressure for “freedom” from the “tyranny” of the South, as in Scotland.
Which is why it’s all the more remarkable that this government, this Chancellor of the Exchequer, is intent on granting Greater Manchester ever-increasing liberty. Out of the blue, George Osborne declared his belief in a “northern powerhouse” and followed that the granting of independence over £2bn of the housing and police budgets (this, on top of Greater Manchester’s existing £5bn). Now, the 10 councils that make up the Greater Manchester conurbation are to be given control over £6bn of NHS spending.
The general election is barely more than two months away; the Tories are anxious to cling on to their seats in the North-West; and Osborne, as an MP in the Manchester stockbroker belt, knows all too well the battle they face with Labour.
But this would be pork-barrel politicking on a grand scale. The rush to embrace the North has come from nowhere. Sure, Manchester has been making pleas for additional recognition, hyping up its claim to be the “Second City.” It’s also the case that there have been gripes for years about the state of the transport infrastructure, and there’s no doubt the neglect shown to the region’s roads and railways has been nothing short of disgraceful.
But those noises had not become substantially louder, and compared to those north of the border they were pretty tame. Neither had they increased considerably after the Scottish Referendum. But suddenly, tonnes of TLC in the shape of transport improvements, and a greater say over how money is spent, are being heaped on the area.
I’ve no objection to the principle of people being able to set their own, local priorities. We should not imagine for a second that all parts of Britain are the same – they each have their own economic and socio-demographic issues that should influence decision-making.
That, though, is part of the problem with this approach. If I were in Cornwall, East Anglia, Northumbria – anywhere except Greater Manchester – I would be complaining that one portion of the nation is being favoured over others, and for no obvious reason.
Included in that list, London. I reside in Greater London and if Manchester was to obtain control over its entire health budget, which seems to be the way things are heading, then that is a far bigger concession than anything afforded to the Mayor of London. Indeed Boris Johnson is indicating he’d be the first in the queue if that happened.
The other cause for alarm, apart from the subjectivity and possible unfairness, is the speed. This is the making of government on the hoof, without the structure properly in place.
Of course the 10 councils will say they will want the choice that is being given to them. No sooner did Osborne say they could determine how the £2bn on police and housing was spent than they asked for more, saying they would like to get their hands on NHS budget so they could better integrate health and social care.
For a Chancellor who has prided himself for much of his reign in standing resolute, Osborne appears to have acceded to their wish – without thinking through the consequences. Already, the council leaders are claiming they will get statutory powers over the cash, while the NHS bosses maintain the money will be handed to them only voluntarily.
The Greater Manchester councils are predominantly Labour yet the move by the Chancellor and the health department does not appear to square with party policy nationally. Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, is warning of a “Swiss cheese” effect on the NHS if cities opt out.
The idea for merging health and social care was proposed by the ResPublica think tank last year. Their argument was that the move would enable chronic conditions such diabetes and obesity to be tackled more effectively, which would help the long-term unemployed and be economically as well as socially beneficial.
While that makes sense on paper, joining-up health and social care, there’s no evidence it makes a substantial improvement in practice. In Northern Ireland, where they’ve been welded together for decades, the King’s Fund think tank found the merging did not improve health or save money.
The problem with what is being proposed is that it’s papering over the cracks. The NHS is creaking, and in desperate need of greater resources; social care is also woefully under-funded. Putting two weak sides together does not make for a stronger single unit.
What is required, of course, is extra cash and there is no sign of that being forthcoming. Those councillors (95 or the 96 councillors in Manchester are Labour) who are so anxious to be allowed to spend £6bn may soon find it does go anywhere like far enough, and they might be called upon to take some very unpopular local decisions, such as closing clinics and hospitals.
At that point they may realise there is something to be said for the faraway, dispassionate nature of Whitehall. There’s a word of difference between spending and investing; and cutting and saving.
Osborne is rearranging the deckchairs in a way that he hopes may placate Labour claims that the Tories do not care enough about the North. He’s doing it in too much of a hurry, and he’s not accompanying it with additional cash. This Northerner, for one, remains to be convinced about the need for the rush to freedom.Reuse content