North West devolution battle goes back in time

There is an excellent and informed article on the BBC website at the moment that anyone who has a vague interest in rating or regional devolution should read.

It looks at the current situation of the emerging Northern Powerhouse but also the history of devolution and why different administrations have emancipated or emasculated local authorities in equal measure.

I won’t include any spoilers here but the reporter speaks to key players such as Sir Richard Leese, the Labour leader of Greater Manchester.

He cites the example of the Greater Manchester’s Metro light railway as the perfect illustration of what’s wrong with the current level of central government interference when local politicians have to go cap in hand to Whitehall to ask for funds to back a project that would benefit approx. 2.7m people.

The article also goes back much further to find other examples of mandarin reticence or interference but also highlights those who were ready to stand up to the London political bully boys.

Victorian Manchester’s formidable, long-serving first Town Clerk Sir Joseph Heron gets mentioned as the man who brought clean water to the city by constructing the Longdendale chain of reservoirs – then the largest such project in the world.

Civic leaders then set about connecting their city to the sea with the 36 mile-long (58km) Manchester Ship Canal was big enough for ocean-going cargo vessels to steam right into the city centre when it opened in 1894.

Heady days for localism in the Victorian times but post war reform means financial wings were clipped and nationalism became the norm.

Move on another four decades and we had the early 1980s battles between the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and what she saw as “loony left” councils then running major cities – in particular the Labour-controlled Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone.

During this bruising era we saw the GLC and six metropolitan councils in other cities abolished and the Tories went on to take business rates out of council control entirely. Councils now had to hand over the business rates they collected to Westminster, to be redistributed as ministers and officials saw fit.

There are some great examples here of how councils became experts in highlighting poverty and deprivation as a means to get grants for projects. A successful policy to get the cash in Blackpool but as one local politician said: “With the benefit of hindsight, it was always slightly depressing”.

The article then comes back to the present day with the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last autumn where George Osborne announced a reversal of Margaret Thatcher’s business rate centralisation.

In future, councils will be allowed to keep the proceeds of increases in their business rate base and by 2020 the new system central government grants to councils will be a thing of the past.

You can read the full article here: – a refreshing change from the usual soundbites on the subject.

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