At the end of last year I wrote an article about the growing number of cities and regions (and even countries) that are committing to a transition to 100% clean energy by 2050.
I’m a member of the campaigning group, Avaaz. So when they asked for members to start their own petitions to try and convince their cities to commit to 100% clean, I jumped at the chance. I thought it made sense for Manchester, where I live. I thought Greater Manchester looked perfectly placed for this with a new DevoManc deal announced in November and a new mayor on the cards. At first I was quite enthusiastic about this devolution deal that had come from out of the blue.
Devolution is good right?
Sure it is. The UK is now far more centralised than other countries of a similar size, but it wasn’t always this way. As Steady State Manchester have pointed out, since the Thatcher era, local government has been “hollowed out” with “limited autonomy and ever reducing responsibilities”. Remember the Manchester Corporation? Before my time, but apparently it was local government that established our water, sewage, power and telecommunications, as well as part of the health service!
The Green Party believe that power should flow from the most local levels of Government to the higher levels. Their policy states “The highest form of democracy is direct participation. This is best achieved through the decentralisation of society, so that decisions can be made through face to face discussion.” This is undoubtably true. Making decisions more locally should lead to policies that are more aligned to the needs and interests of people locally.
So what’s the problem?
Well first of all, we didn’t ask for this DevoManc deal. It’s been conceived through secret negotiations between Howard Bernstein and George Osbourne and then announced as a fait acompli. The whole process has been totally undemocratic and let’s face it, condecending! Why can’t we decide how we should be governed, rather than have George Osbourne tell us? As The Green Party Public Administration Policy states: Power should flow “upwards from the people”. The people of Greater Manchester are not being given any say in these arrangements – although there is now a campaign and a growing number of protests for a proper consultation and referendum.
Secondly, the deal doesn’t go far enough. Most of the city’s new powers will be regulatory. They won’t include some big budget items such as secondary education or welfare payments, although will now include the NHS (thanks for that poison chalice, George!). But crucially, we won’t be given any power to raise taxes. Scope to raise and account for taxes is the touchstone of local democracy. A New York mayor has discretion over seven local revenue streams (including income tax). Central grants cover just a third of local spending in New York, a quarter in Berlin and 17% in Paris. The equivalent figure for English cities is a humiliating 95%. Local government is a mere agency of the centre. All these new powers will give us is the power to distribute some of the crumbs from the Westminster table and then get the blame that the funds were insufficient. Did somebody mention the NHS?
Further devolution would be required before Manchester could take full control of tax raising alongside significant public spending in Greater Manchester and George Osbourne isn’t going to grant these kind of freedoms lightly.
Furthermore, the new arrangement does not provide any proper democratic accountability. There would be no assembly, with too much power in the hands of the mayor and their posse of nine council leaders. As pointed out by Steady State Manchester in their excellent recent blog on the subject, “as any systems scientist can tell you, it takes diversity to represent, interpret and act in an environment characterised by diversity but what we are getting is a technocratic-managerial fix, poorly suited (if sharp-suited) to heal the legitimation crisis of our failing democracy.”
The 1974 defined boundary of Greater Manchester may work well in terms of a joined up transport system for the city and its surrounding areas, but as Steady State Manchester and Campaign for the North have argued, it doesn’t work in terms of being a self-sufficient region. Going back to The Green Party policy on Public Administration: “A community cannot be self-determining unless it is to a large extent self-reliant. Self-reliance is the ability to satisfy needs without being excessively or unequally dependent upon anyone; self- sufficiency is one way to achieve self-reliance, but is by no means the only way.”
This takes us back to my original subject of climate change and the need to achieve 100% clean energy. We can install solar panels on all our houses and other urban buildings like schools, offices, factories, hospitals etc., but that won’t be enough. Much of the energy that Greater Manchester needs would need to be generated in the wider areas around the north west of England; from wind turbines on the hills of Lancashire to hydro-electricity along our rivers to potential sources of tidal power on the coast. We rely on farming in our rural areas in the north, even if we are currently far from self-sufficient. We should also consider positive policies to capture carbon dioxide by using our upland and wetland areas for reforestation instead of our obsession with covering our bare hillsides with sheep!.
In other words, rather than a Norther Powerhouse, we need an eco-region!