£1bn in funding, more power to our Council and even an elected mayor. It appears, with the historic, revolutionary devolution deal, that the days of the north-south divide are numbered and that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ of Manchester will finally be able to rival London. If the Conservatives retain power at the next general election, that is.

As part of the landmark deal, Chancellor George Osborne has promised:

– Control of the region’s  £500m skills budget
– A £450m tram extension to Trafford Park
– £300m in housebuilding cash which is to go towards building 15,000 homes over the next 10 years
– A pledge to make Manchester a science capital
– Greater planning powers
– Control over local transport and Oyster card-style tickets
– Welfare-to-work programmes, with a budget of £100m, to help up to 50,000 people back into work
– Control of existing health and social care budgets, which have been pooled by local authorities across Greater Manchester
– Greater responsibility for business support and further education
– Up to £30m per year for the growth generated by its economy

The chancellor claims that this devolution deal will create jobs, better transport and more responsive policing. Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is.

In 2012, we, alongside eight other cities, unanimously rejected calls for an elected mayoral figure and yet central to this deal is that we unify our Council behind one figurehead, even though the ten local authorities in Greater Manchester have, since 1986, been quite capable of working together without such a figure. Stockport Borough Council leader Sue Derbyshire has already argued that the London model isn’t necessarily going to work in the north as there is a lack of collaboration between the figure and district leaders. The chancellor has also rejected calls for a vote on the issue, insisting that “the talking is now over”.

One argument in favour of having an elected mayoral figure for the city is that it gives Manchester one voice to bring us recognition on the global stage. But Manchester is world renowned already. We’re the birthplace of the industrial revolution, we gave the world Madchester, Factory Records and Oasis, we attract tourists with the globally recognised Warehouse Project. Do we really need help reminding the world who we are with Manchester United and Manchester City taking our city to the global stage in the sporting world? Yes, many of the world’s great cities have elected figureheads, but it might be worth remembering the words of Tony Wilson: “This is Manchester – we do things differently here.”

More power for local leaders over transport is undoubtedly a good move. Those familiar with our city are in a much better position to make decisions on what money goes where than the Department of Transport, but the promise of an Oyster card for Manchester is not as good as it appears. Transport for Greater Manchester is already in the process of launching the ‘Get Me There’ service, which fulfils many of the same functions. It is planned to be rolled out on the Metrolink this year, with buses integrated towards the end of 2015 and trains brought on board a year after that.

And what about the brutal cuts our Council already faces? This £1bn towards tram extensions and house building conveniently masks the fact that Manchester City Council already has to cut £59 million from this year’s budget, rising to a possible £90 million over the next two years, and Greater Manchester’s ten local authorities combined are facing cuts of more than a quarter of a billion pounds next year. This will place the most vulnerable in our society at greater risk, as social and care services are shortlisted to bear the brunt of the assault. The promise of more money and power for Greater Manchester is not as benevolent as it seems in the face of such harsh austerity.

I’m under no illusion that an over-centralised government was not delivering the best for, not only Manchester, but everywhere north of Watford Gap, and that devolution of key powers to those who are better placed to use them is a fantastic idea, but the promise of these powers must be measured against their cost. To be guaranteed this ‘revolutionary’ deal, we are to commit to another round of harsh spending cuts which have already led to 10,000 council jobs being lost and town halls running some of their services with a third less cash than they had four years ago. We are also to commit to a bureaucrat we not only haven’t asked for, but that only two years ago we outright rejected. The chancellor has already been accused by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls of resorting to “smoke and mirrors” once in regards to his “halving” of the British bill to the EU budget and we must be wary of him employing the same tactic again to trick us into committing our city and the most vulnerable in it to years more austerity.

Background image by Marco Mazzoni.

David Ewing