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Manchester town hall chiefs welcome ‘bonfire of Whitehall controls’

By Stephen Sumner

A new Government plan could mean that powers are about to shift from Whitehall to the country’s regional hubs such as Manchester. 

The initiative will give local authorities unprecedented control over such areas as jobs, transport and planning.

Cities Minister Greg Clark is in talks with the country’s major cities to create bespoke deals to best benefit each of them.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “Our cities have been straining at Whitehall’s leash. They now have a once in a generation opportunity. I urge them to seize it and make it count.”

This “bonfire of Whitehall controls,” as Nick Clegg put it, comes as part of the government’s Cities Agenda, which was announced in Leeds last week.

Under the plans, eight “core cities” would lead the way: Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield. Other cities would follow later.

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester council and Greater Manchester Combined Authority vice-chairman, said: “If we have greater freedom, we could create a situation in Greater Manchester where we cut unemployment.

“This is a government desperate for economic growth in the private sector but the way things are, it is constraining our ability to help deliver that. This is us saying ‘set us free and we will be able to generate that’.

“We are in a unique position as a city region, in that we are the only place in the country with a statutory body (the Greater Manchester Combined Authority) to delegate those powers to. This is a big test for government. If they give us a serious package of devolution, it will be a real incentive for other areas.”

Deals are expected to be signed by the time of the 2012 Budget.

The Prime Minister and the Deputy PM stated in the Coalition Agreement: “The time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today.”

The idea will embody the Big Society – it is intended to cut bureaucracy and move England towards a more involved democracy, one in which individuals have greater control over the decisions which affect them.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has already been in talks with Leeds City Council in a joint bid to take the trans-Pennine train line out of the control of the Department for Transport and into the hands of those who use it when the existing contract expires in 2014.

Some Labour MPs were not as dismissive of the Con-Lib proposals as might be expected.

Indeed, Labour had a plan of its own to devolve powers to major cities back in 2009, when an independent review of Manchester’s economic performance in 2009 found that it was underperforming considering it was the second largest city outside the South-East.

“We’re not going to oppose the things we’ve heard announced this morning just for the sake of it,” said Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna.

“But we need to look at the detail – the devil really is in the detail in this case.”

Manchester MP Tony Lloyd has been considering the details of the proposals and what they will mean for the city and the country overall.

This decentralisation of power will give councils greater power over their own budgets and cut the red tape that delays decisions on development.

The Government’s draft National Policy Planning Framework, would change the planning laws, making the default answer to a planning application to ‘yes,’ which could impact negatively if it does not balance competing social, economic and environmental priorities.

He said: “I am particularly concerned that financial considerations could become the key determinant in how local authorities decide planning applications.”

He argued that removing the regulations would reduce accountability, and result in an increase in the number of appeals that would actually slow down the decision-making process.

“I will continue to press the Government to revise the NPPF to ensure it protects the countryside, allows for genuinely sustainable development and empowers local communities,” he added.

The decentralisation of power is a topic that different administrations have agreed on, and it falls to the coalition to flesh out the details.

Councillor Andrew Fender, Chair of the Transport for Greater Manchester Committee, said that the plans were the keystone of the previous government’s £1.5bn Greater Manchester Transport Fund.

“The fact that this is on the Government’s agenda, and that its focus is not on a ‘one size fits all’ approach, is very encouraging,” he said. 

Ed Cox, director of IPPR North, argued in favour of decentralisation and said that northern cities could only compete as a global city through collective endeavour.

“Leeds’s success depends on Manchester, and vice-versa,” he said.

David Blunkett, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, was not convinced of the motive behind the plans, or the success that Manchester could have when 25% of its budget was cut this year.

“The reality is devolved pain,” he said.

“Cities across the country are forced to take impossible decisions for which they and not central Government get the blame.”

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