Greater Manchester: a devolved city region that is still evolving

The Future of Government Leaders Series We’re speaking with government leaders, civil servants and public sector workers around the world to understand how they’re thinking about the future and shaping their organisations for the challenges ahead.

At the Centre for Public Impact, we have been exploring enablement – how government can find new ways of doing things, giving people greater autonomy at a local level within a more collaborative model. One of the key enablers is regional devolution. In 2016, the UK parliament passed the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which introduced regional combined authorities with directly elected mayors. Greater Manchester was one of the first regions to grasp the opportunities the Act presented. So, it seemed the natural place to witness the impact of devolution so far. I recently went there to meet John Wrathmell, assistant director of strategy and policy at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

A history of Mancunian cooperation

John and I began by talking about the authority’s history. Greater Manchester Council was abolished in 1986, and the ten districts of Greater Manchester have been working together since then. In the city centre, you’ve got Manchester on one side of the river, Salford on the other – even your central business district spans two different local authorities, so they have collaborated from an early stage. The ten districts cooperated during the 1990s and 2000s through a set of governance structures and institutions, including Marketing Manchester, which promotes the city region globally, and New Economy, a think tank providing policy and research support.

According to John, this has enabled Greater Manchester to be at the forefront of devolution. “The devolution deals have come since 2014,” he pointed out, “but actually it was 20 years in the making. And when central government became interested in devolution, Greater Manchester already had a history of working together and was able to lead the way.” Since 2014, Greater Manchester made a series of deals with government, “and that’s what people think of as devolution here, the deals around transport, infrastructure, health and social care, and the education budget.”

Devolution – but not as we might know it

In May 2017, Greater Manchester elected its first mayor, Andy Burnham, a former Labour cabinet minister. What has surprised people since his election in May 2017 is the soft power and the convening power of just having a mayor. You can actually get a lot of things done, even without formal powers.

This soft power is achieved through a process of negotiation, compromise and agreement with other leaders across Greater Manchester. “It’s very much a collaborative approach.” This also applies to activities such as developing the Good Employment Charter. “Unless you take business, trade unions, individual employers, employees with you,” John explained, “you can’t achieve your aims anyway. So, the lack of formal powers does point towards co-production, working with different groups.”

This cooperative approach is equally important when working with central government, because the devolved city regions lack the power and independence of comparable European and American cities. The Combined Authority largely relies on central government for funding streams. “And central government always likes to attach strings, so we have a constant battle to say: ‘don’t put conditions on things. We need to be able to use the funding flexibly.’ Central government needs to give up even more control.”

Making the case for radical change within a traditional government structure

As a city region, Greater Manchester is maintaining its reputation for being progressive, for being different from the rest of the UK. “There’s definitely an appetite here for innovation, experimentation and taking risks. Central government does look to Greater Manchester as a test-bed for the rest of the country.” And, as in any form of testing, it’s important to have a sound evidence base as well as the desire to experiment. “In making the case to national government, we have a credible evidence base that we can point to and say ‘look, we really do understand our local area, we understand the dynamics deep down in our economy ’. That’s important, not just for good policymaking but also for being able to prove that we know our stuff and know what we’re doing.”

“There’s definitely an appetite here for innovation, experimentation and taking risks. Central government does look to Greater Manchester as a test-bed for the rest of the country.”

And Greater Manchester has benefited from its open-mindedness. “For example, we’ve tried new models of service integration. They get piloted in individual communities, and then you roll out the principles across the city region.” Just such a model is being trialled by Oldham Council, while neighbouring Rochdale is reforming its approach to social care. “Health and social care devolution is a case in point – nowhere else has it”. Greater Manchester’s view is that we know the system needs reform and we’ll have a crack at sorting it out. “We want to go out there and try some different things.”

Operating in a new space

Greater Manchester has recently released a white paper setting out a model for service reform – how to bring services together and integrate the workforce. “It’s not a top-down blueprint,” he said, “but our view is that ‘these are the principles we’ll try and follow, because we feel this improves services in a more efficient way’.” One of the lessons learned along the way is that, with greater autonomy, “you can suddenly do a lot of new things, because you’ve got direct political leadership with a democratic mandate”. It’s a new space which didn’t exist here before. And it’s a space that holds all kinds of potential for Greater Manchester’s future.


Manchester’s experience with devolution and integrated services is part of what we have been exploring at the Centre for Public Impact as part of our enablement research. Watch this space for more about our travels throughout the UK to discover cases of government experimenting with this approach. We would love to hear from you if you work in the public sector and have a story to share about how you are empowering and collaborating for a more people-centred government.