Devolution: is Manchester no longer the chosen one?

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There has been a lot of discussion over the fate of the Northern Powerhouse since Theresa May’s coronation as Prime Minister. Despite the appointment of a new Northern Powerhouse minister, Mrs May has apparently distanced herself from the policy programme by creating the Cabinet Committee on Economy and Industrial Strategy, which seeks to deliver an economy, ‘that works for everyone.’ Manchester has long been seen as the leading star for devolution in the North, but this is now in doubt with some officials suggesting that the Prime Minister wants to spread investment across the North rather than focussing on a few key cities such as Manchester.

When asked recently whether Theresa May’s approach would slow down progress in Manchester, Sir Howard Bernstein, Chief Executive of Manchester City Council, said, “I hope not, but I cannot guarantee it.” This does not sound like the rhetoric of an optimist, and the city seems to be responding by pulling out all of the stops to maintain its position.

As reported in the Financial Times this week, Sir Howard will be attending a meeting in Whitehall with various Government officials in September, accompanied by Sean Anstee, Greater Manchester’s only Conservative council leader. This could be seen as a last chance at maintaining Manchester’s place as the capital of devolution. By taking Cllr Anstee, a well-respected, North Western Conservative with him, Sir Howard will be hoping that key Conservative figures in Westminster will be more likely to listen to any lobbying efforts on behalf of Greater Manchester and help protect its place as the centre of the Northern Powerhouse. After all, who speaks Tory better than the Tories?

This approach isn’t new. In 2013, Joe Anderson, Labour’s ‘top dog’ on Liverpool City Council, was accompanied by Cllr Warren Bradley, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition, on a lobbying mission to get extra funding for the city. The idea behind this move was for Cllr Bradley to appeal to his Liberal Democrat colleagues in Government, particularly Andrew Stunell, who at the time was a minister at DCLG. This was seen at the time as a bold move by both city councillors, who were apparently putting their rivalry to one side in order to put the city of Liverpool first.

It remains to be seen whether making Mr Anstee the face of Greater Manchester to the Conservative leadership in Whitehall will work. Whatever the case, the relationship Manchester has with the Government has changed, and the city will have to work a lot harder in the future to remain the face of devolution, and may have to be prepared to share any future investment opportunities rather than be the focus of it.

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