DEVOLUTION to Greater Manchester has not arrived overnight.
This has truly been a hard fought process, so it would be churlish of me not to reflect, first of all, that this is a momentous week.
As the great and good – and myself(!) – travelled to Manchester Town Hall on Monday we were still reviewing the very last minute details of the ‘deal’ with Government which was to go before us all for final agreement.
For Greater Manchester this means more power will now be in the hands of those who directly represent the community.
For local government it also means that the devolution debate has now finally moved on.
My own view is this package of £1 billion pounds of financial devolution across a range of responsibilities represents good progress.
But it should really only be considered a decent starting point – and it is certainly not the end game.
Why? Well, it’s important to put that £1bn into context for starters.
Over the life of the current settlement this is actually less than the budget cuts that are faced by Greater Manchester councils, which will stand at around £1.2bn.
The package of new powers coming down to us on housing, transport, skills and the economy – as well as health – is also a good foundation to build on.
But that, of course, is only the case provided that this is genuine devolution and not some poisoned chalice whereby cuts coming further down the line are a sweeter pill for the Treasury to swallow because someone else now has to make the tough decisions needed.
I’m thinking, as an example, about the funding of adult skills: an area where colleges are already struggling incredibly hard to balance the books in the face of constant change.
Since the establishment of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011 it has become apparent that simply bolting on new structures, committees and changing job titles is not the way for us to run an efficient organisation.
But in a drive to remove layers and modernise we must also not create a distant elite.
The role of all councillors in Greater Manchester in contributing and holding to account the work of the City Region is especially vital if we are to get more responsibilities.
For me, the move to a directly-elected mayor with responsibility for the whole of the city region is not an answer in itself. But if this is used to clean up a confusing and disjointed system then it could well give the people of Greater Manchester the ability to hold those making decisions on their behalf to account.
We must be very clear, however, to all members of the public about what this organisation does and how much it costs too.
People know how much the police costs them because, like the Fire and Rescue Authority, it appears on their Council Tax bills.
They also know how much the Waste and Transport Authorities cost because they also appear as a levy to each council.
Each body knows its budget and sticks to it.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester, operating through the Combined Authority, needs to have that same level of accountability and openness about the true cost of this new layer of local government.
And it cannot be right that to fund this new office each council should have to cut their own budgets further to fund a whole new army of civil servants, special advisors and the like.
Equally there will also be understandable fears that the identity of each district may be diluted – Manchester Borough of Oldham anyone? – or the different needs of each town may be lost in a bid to bring us all closer together.
That’s why I believe that protection of the sovereignty of each council is absolutely vital here if we’re serious about this being a process that sees powers drawn further down, rather than each council giving power up and taking it even further away from the communities it serves.
Personally I remain unconvinced there is a public appetite for another politician, directly elected or otherwise, to take charge across the City Region.
I also take exception to the imposition of this deal by an appointed Chancellor who, let’s not forget, controls £732 billion and is forcing a directly-elected Mayor on Greater Manchester for a price of just £1bn, which is 0.13 per cent of UK Government spend.
The real battle here though isn’t about convincing politicians of the merits of this deal, it’s about explaining it and showing the merits to the public.
I’d say that will only happen if we show what good can be achieved as the answer to the ‘so what?’ question.
For this deal to ultimately succeed we must build on it very quickly and continue the fight to get as much fiscal devolution as possible – because power without resources is actually no power at all.
There’s no denying these are fascinating times, however, and there’s little doubt that the prospect of being the Mayor of Greater Manchester with its £50 billion economy and its 2.5 million people represents a fantastic role which should attract a credible field of potential candidates.
But, please, let’s hear no more of this talk about GM getting our own ‘Boris’. That,
I suspect, could put off even the most harded supporter of regional mayors.
To finish on a different note, I also wanted to let people know about the activity taking place across our borough this week to tackle the problem of illegal money lenders (aka loan sharks) in the run up to Christmas.
Oldham Council is working with Greater Manchester Police and the England Illegal Money Lending Team (IMLT) encouraging people of all ages to celebrate the festive season without falling prey to local loan sharks.
We want to raise awareness of the dangers borrowers face, not only in terms of the high interest repayments, but also the all-too-often extreme collection methods that are used, including violence, threats and intimidation. These illegal lenders are a blight on our neighbourhoods and communities – and are not welcome in a co-operative borough like Oldham.
We also want to ensure people know that there are responsible lenders available out there, such as the Oldham Credit Union (OCU).
Anyone can sign up to the OCU which offers residents access to fair and straightforward financial services, including secure savings and affordable loans.
This week also sees the start of two exciting new OCU initiatives. In partnership with Villages Housing, it will be launching a Community Collection Point at Fitton Hill and also a Junior Savings Club at Beever primary school.
I wish both schemes the best of luck and strongly encourage people in those communities to get behind them. For more information about OCU log onto www.oldhamcreditunion.co.uk or call 0161 678 7245.
Please don’t get bitten this Christmas. And if you think a loan shark may be operating in your area call the confidential hotline on 0300 555 2222.
And finally – just a quick reminder…
Please get yourself and your loved ones along to The Big Bang on Oldham Edge for a real treat on Bonfire Night. This is a great free family event for Oldham and you can find all the information you need by clicking here.
Thanks for listening,