By Cllr Jim McMahon
Leader of Oldham Council and Leader of the LGA Labour Group
Greater Manchester has a long and strong history of working together. We’ve seen our economy grow, the creation of jobs and serious investment in transport and infrastructure which has connected us all across the region and beyond.
With all major parties in Westminster looking for ground as we consider the ‘English question’ the emerging city regions are a natural reference point. What’s the point in reinventing something which already exists and works?
In Oldham our approach is clear. We are a collection of communities in our own right, from Failsworth through to Saddleworth, as the borough of Oldham. It hasn’t been an easy marriage with many communities still harking back to the days before 1974 when each township and village was proud self-governing councils surrounding Oldham County Borough.
Politicians are delusional if they attempt to believe that lines drawn on a map for electoral convenience makes a jot of difference to the public.
The sense of belonging communities across Oldham feel can be seen across the whole of Greater Manchester. For some, it will be a discrete neighbourhood, a township or village. For others it will be historic counties such as Lancashire or West Riding of Yorkshire.
Devolution isn’t localism and it certainly isn’t about community identity and we shouldn’t pretend it is. But what we are talking about though is important in its own right.
Westminster is so disconnected from the lives of people in Greater Manchester it is a nonsense that so much is decided there. Decisions should be made by local people who they can hold to account (and they do!).
We’ve proven we can deliver public services which provide a better service and save the public purse money too. When the national Work Programme failed Greater Manchester leaders stood up to the challenge. Today we’re helping those out of work. It costs less when we do it and we help far more people.
We’ve proven we can grow the local economy by working beyond our own boundaries and understanding how micro our economy can be. We’ve invested in transport and brought together employment sites. We’ve a long way to go and local people know that all too well, but we can claim credit to being the largest growing city region outside of London.
But there is a still a huge gap. London is a powerhouse that hasn’t happened by accident. The capital we see today is the result of more than 100 years centralised government. Focusing cash on things they do see (Westminster and its surrounding areas) at the cost of things they don’t see as often.
Don’t just take my word for it. Transport and infrastructure investment which is commonly accepted as a vital foundation of economic growth is huge. Londoners enjoy more than £5,400 a year per person while the North West of England receives just £599. The same can be said of housing spend, culture and the arts and almost every other area of public spend.
We don’t want any more than anywhere else, we just want the same. Isn’t that fair?
With the prospect of further powers and control over the public purse we’ve got to get our Greater Manchester house in order.
We’ve done well but the mixture of bodies and committees which make up the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) is complex and confusing.
If we want to be a slim and efficient machine then we must be, well a slim and efficient machine. But we must also uphold the values of public service; democratic, open and transparent.
When some media outlets talk about devolution to the city region they too often have a Manchester City Council centric view, with the image of the town hall in Manchester used to represent all of us. Whilst Manchester City Council is important it isn’t the City Region alone.
We must also not fall into the trap we accuse Westminster of; not all of Greater Manchester is the same and has the same issues. In the same way we see a national ‘North-South divide’ we see the same here on our doorstep.
While the south of the city region booms we don’t see the same pace in the North, and it cannot be the case that we accept some areas just don’t do as well as others.
The post-industrial towns and boroughs must feature in a meaningful way and there must be a clear articulation of the future, and it cannot be simply a low cost commuter belt.
Whatever the reasons, of which economists and officials will give many, it is a fact that over the past decade more than 27,000 jobs have been created in the south of the conurbation with just 2,400 in the north.
Now it could be argued that aside from practical issues of land availability and the obvious point that the Combined Authority has only been in existence for three years as an authority in its own right.
But that doesn’t address where we go from here – the official forecast is that the north south dividend will continue. Over the next ten years it is forecast that over 100,000 new jobs will be created, but almost 79 per cent will be located in the south.
And it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a play for Oldham, Rochdale and Tameside. The same is true of neighbourhoods in the north of Manchester.
Until earlier this year those in the north paid 50 per cent more than their southern counterparts in bus fares. But it wasn’t Greater Manchester who tackled that. It was left to Oldham to start the campaign for fairer bus fares – which we won by working in partnership with Firstbus.
It might not be as sexy as brand new trams or national rail, but the affordability of transport for many of my constituents is an important issue, especially in connecting those in need of work with the available jobs.
Still house prices are significantly less in the north than in the south and residents in the north will be predominately paid less.
Clearly there are complex reasons. The south will see significant pockets of poverty in the same way there are areas of significant affluence in the north of the conurbation.
We should be clear and celebrate the fact that we have seen investment which was only achieved through our work with the other nine councils.
The most significant is the investment in Metrolink which will undoubtedly act as a boost to the local economy and create a ‘point of difference’ for potential investors. We’ve also worked hard to attract funding to support new businesses to set up and existing businesses to grow.
We’ve been able to do things which we could not achieve, or afford to do alone. The business Growth Hub is a fine example of the power we can generate together with specialist support for growth in all areas, including internationalisation and access to finance.
The story of post-industrial Britain and ‘Northern Milltown’s’ is well rehearsed. Indeed in many ways it is staggering that more than 300 mills have been decommissioned and that the manufacturing base of Oldham has so fundamentally changed that we don’t see more problems than we do.
Post war Oldham has witnessed massive improvements on housing, health and education and that shouldn’t be underestimated, but we do need to be honest and say, like many other places, we haven’t realised our full potential.
The challenge is, what are we going to do about it?
Firstly, it is for Oldham to define its own future not wait for others to do it for us. Our ambitious but very necessary investment in regenerating Oldham is an important part of that. Some will argue with cuts to the council we shouldn’t be investing in big projects like the Old Town Hall or heritage centre and theatre. My view is that now is exactly the time to invest in jobs, homes and creating the type of town where people are happy to live and raise their families.
It is also critical that we invest in education and skills if we are to succeed in giving our young people the best possible start, and to make them competitive and attractive to business – or of course the entrepreneur of the future creating jobs for others.
With greater devolution comes greater responsibility. If Westminster are willing to let go of power and resources there is a greater responsibility on the leaders/mayor and councillors who make up the combined authority.
The sales pitch to the people of Greater Manchester cannot be slightly more of the same; it’s got to be significant. We have to aim for a city region where fairness and equality is at the heart of what we do and where the dividends of growth are shared across all communities.
We’ve done wonders with relatively small amounts of funding within the constraints of national government and often at the whim of ministers.
We live in exciting times and the prospect of more say over the things that affect the people we seek to represent is critical if we are to realise our full potential.
But let’s not forget, if we only focus on Manchester we miss the GREATER opportunity.
Cllr Jim McMahon is Leader of Oldham Council, Chair of the CCIN and Leader of the LGA Labour Group. Follow him on Twitter at: @cllrjimmcmahon.
This article originally appeared on Cllr Jim McMahon’s personal blog.