Politicians across the political spectrum have warned that Greater Manchester’s structures are not robust enough to hold the mayor accountable for the city’s existing devolution agreement – even before a possible ‘leveling’ agreement from ministers.
Over the past week, Andy Burnham has been working hard on Tory ministers during their party conference in Manchester, promising that he will in turn be held accountable for the delivery in return for an additional £ 1bn.
He has suggested that Parliament – in the form of the Committee on the Election of Public Accounts – could then ask him about his record.
But many councilors here are more interested in knowing how spending is taken responsibility locally, as it is meant to be an important precondition for devolution.
And increasingly, they believe the current system is not fit for purpose, Greater Manchester-level warning meetings are ‘cross-box’ exercises, gatherings that are often canceled at the last minute and only hear from the mayor about once a year.
One such committee, the ‘Enterprise and Reform’ panel, will examine major public sector programs throughout the urban region. But it has not met formally since February, with meetings in March, July, September and Tuesday of this week all being canceled or held informally due to non-attendance.
The Committee on Housing, Planning and the Environment was canceled in June, July and September.
Meanwhile, the police and criminal panel – which is supposed to look at issues in both the fire service and the police force, the latter currently in special measures – only meet every three or four months and had no future meetings listed at all when MENNE checked the schedule at the end of September, despite recent promises of stronger police investigation following repeated poor inspection reports. Two future meetings were then quickly added to the site after we questioned the situation.
In a statement today, the GMCA said there were police and criminal panel meetings “scheduled for March 2022”.
It also blamed the resumption of face-to-face meetings in May this year for a wave of cancellations.
Nevertheless, the Stockholm Liberal Democrats have been warning about the investigation situation for some time.
Group leader and former Cheadle MP Mark Hunter wrote to the mayor in August 2020, complaining about canceled meetings and long periods between committees, among other concerns.
“I think it is fair to say that, despite the best of intentions, the current control process is suboptimal at best, and that a formal review of existing schemes would be appropriate,” he wrote. “While I appreciate that Covid-19 has made these issues even more difficult, it was clear even before the lockdown that the system was not working terribly well.”
In response, the mayor replied in October last year that he ‘wholeheartedly agreed’ that a cross-party review of structures was needed, adding that the scope work had already begun but then had to be put on hold due to the pandemic.
“An initial scope has been developed and is being finalized,” he wrote, “with a view to agreeing on implementation for the start of the new mayoral term” in May 2021.
No such review has yet materialized, a year later, though a spokesman for the mayor said it would be launched ‘later this year’.
Recent talk of a ‘smoothing’ agreement for Greater Manchester – as well as concerns about the region’s track record in relation to police work, where local politicians failed to publicly spot or investigate major errors within Greater Manchester Police over a long period of time – has only increased political pressure for a review of accountability mechanisms.
Nathan Evans, Conservative group leader at Trafford and vice-chairman of the corporate affairs panels, has seen half of his committee meetings canceled at the last minute since the beginning of the year. He says meeting times suddenly began to move around in 2021, and councilors have dropped out at the last minute, leaving the panels with too few people to formally take place in the last six months.
The GMCA insists that the work covered by committees and their times are up to their individual chairs. However, Coun Evans says that despite being deputy chairman of the committee, he has struggled to get specific issues – such as aspects of the region’s ‘clean air’ charging plan – added to the agenda, even after he had directly requested that they was asked.
Granular control is especially important when such large sums of money are sent to an area, he believes, as the government suggests it will be the case under its ‘smoothing’ agenda.
“[‘Levelling up’ secretary] Michael Gove has been very aware that he wants places with equalization of agreements to be held accountable, “he says, adding that regular mayoral radio telephone inputs and meetings in” town hall style “are not a substitute for being grilled by councilors.
“If they want to develop further, they need people locally who work to hold them accountable, who are not all from the same party and who have the drive and passion for the control process.”
Greater Manchester’s control structures are a product of the legislation underlying its mayoral system, which even some of those involved at the time say was drafted in a hurry.
The city does not have an elected assembly in the style of London, and while some politicians spoken to in this article believe it would be the best solution, others believe it would be unpopular and simply create another level of leadership. Coun Evans believes that at least it would not be a quick fix as it would require legislative changes.
“For now, we need to work on what we have,” he believes.
What we have is essentially a cluster of committees, with each council sending members according to their own political composition. By law, members do not receive remuneration for participating in most panels, and – although they admit that it will be an unpopular point with the public – many remarks that make the role less desirable and less accessible to those who do not have advice to keep free from work, especially when meetings are suddenly moved to daytime, as many have been recently.
Stockholm’s Liberal Democrat councilor Lisa Smart, former chairman of the Housing and Planning Committee, is among those who hold that view. But she also argues that research within the Greater Manchester system is not taken seriously enough at the top, pointing to a ‘cultural problem’.
“Survey is seen as a process to get through, rather than part of the process itself; an obstacle to skip, ”she says.
“Good control leads to better decision-making and confident decision-making – strong control does not always agree with the decision.
“The timing of the study is important. It is important to look back at decisions that have been made, but strong control committees live into the decision-making process as it happens. ”
A Labor member who used to sit on one of the Greater Manchester control panels agrees, calling them a ‘cross-box exercise’. Personally, they learned quite a bit about politics by attending the meetings, they say – but stress that it is not the same as a meaningful challenge.
“It was often not decisive [too few members turned up for the meeting to officially take place]”They did not see it as an added value, because it did not. The focus should be on how to help decision making and accounting, not just a talking store.”
The combination of no pay and the feeling that their time is being wasted means there is hardly a queue of councilors wanting to take the job out into the neighborhoods, they add.
Perhaps the Greater Manchester survey so far has been too far down the priority list both at the city level and at the top. Still, a robust accountability process should certainly be a prerequisite for the kind of further devolution Greater Manchester is currently seeking.
“Our agreement could be a model for smoothing and net-zero delivery for the whole country,” says the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s publicly turned pitch for a leveling offer.
“We want a real partnership between Greater Manchester and the government with clear responsibility and proper accountability for local leaders.”
For just over DKK 1 billion The pound suggests the level of public spending Greater Manchester undertakes – on top of the large sums it already oversees in terms of fire, police, strategic and economic growth – is not insignificant.
“If we are serious about getting the most out of devolution and its benefits for our region, we must admit to ourselves that the current control systems are not fit for purpose,” said Chris Clarkson, Tory MP for Heywood and Middleton and a former Salford councilor and called the current structures ‘Byzantine’.
“Transparency is key, and I do not think most people agree that the GMCA effectively marks its own homework is a particularly good situation.”
What the GMCA says
A spokesman for the GMCA said: “The GMCA is committed to ensuring robust control across all areas of work so that councilors from all parts of the urban region have the opportunity to question officials and elected members on issues coming before the Combined Authority. As chairmen of inquiry committees and members, opposition councilors have the opportunity to shape these meetings and the important function they perform.
“From May 7, the central government demanded that all meetings take place in person, and although this has affected some members’ ability to attend, the majority of commissions of inquiry have continued to meet regularly both before and during the pandemic.
“The Mayor and Greater Manchester leaders make every effort to attend inquiry committee meetings and notify the GMCA in advance in cases where this is not possible.
“The police and crime panel is investigating the mayor and the deputy mayor in their role as police and crime commissioner. In addition to the regular police and crime panel meetings scheduled for March 2022, the mayor has set up police meetings on accountability to hold him and the chief constable accountable.
“These are open to Greater Manchester councilors and MPs to attend. The first meeting will be held on 26 November.
“We are reviewing all investigative processes and will soon conduct an independent review led by a cross-policy member group to look at how these processes can best provide transparency and accountability to Greater Manchester residents.
“Members will be invited to contribute to this review when it launches later in the year.”