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How devolution and the northern powerhouse can work together

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 15

PSE’s Adam Hewitt reports from ‘The Future of the Northern Powerhouse and Local Government’ conference organised by the University of Salford and its subsidiary training company ONECPD.

The Northern Powerhouse has relatively high name recognition, but actual understanding of what it is all about is significantly lower. The public could be forgiven for that, according to Professor Helen Marshall, vice chancellor of the University of Salford, since “the more we read, the more the agenda shifts.” 

Prof Marshall was giving the welcome address at a major conference organised by her university at The Lowry in Salford, for which PSE was the media partner. 

But she acknowledged that the Northern Powerhouse agenda – linked with, but distinct from, devolution – was a “fantastic opportunity” for the region. 

The keynote speaker at the event was Manchester City Council leader Cllr Sir Richard Leese. Being a Labour man, he was unwilling to give all the credit to Conservative chancellor George Osborne. The Northern Powerhouse “did not start with a speech last year”, he said, crediting the work of the Northern Way collaboration of the former regional development agencies from 2004-11, and the boost to city-region collaboration initiated by the 2014 HS2 Plus report by Sir David Higgins. That work led directly to the July 2014 launch of ‘One North: A proposition for an interconnected north’, which went beyond rail to also look at highways, freight and logistics, and airports. 

Summer 2014 also saw Osborne’s first use of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ phrase, which has since become a staple of government rhetoric, and has its own minister (James Wharton). 

Sir Richard spoke of the north’s potential, and the international comparators that give reason for optimism and could be looked to for useful lessons. There are lots of good examples in the Netherlands and Germany especially, he said, of mid-sized cities geographically close together that act as single economic areas – where the infrastructure is in place for them to do so. 

A ‘virtual city’ 

There is a “virtual city” in the north of England of some 10 million people, Sir Richard suggested, which could act as a balance to London. But transport investment is the vital ingredient – particularly faster rail links on the west-east axis, from Liverpool through to Hull via Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, and perhaps north to Newcastle. Those plans, sometimes dubbed HS3 (although the speeds involved will not be on the same scale as HS1 or HS2), are very much at the concept stage. However, work is being done by Transport for the North as well as HS2 Ltd, Network Rail and the government to establish the most viable options for improvement. 

In contrast to the government, Sir Richard referred to the Northern Powerhouse as an “aspiration” rather than something that already exists. Creating it in practice will depend on money, vision and the north speaking with one voice, he said. 

In a Q&A session after his talk, PSE asked Sir Richard whether there was a perception problem, with many people considering the Northern Powerhouse a Manchester-centric initiative. 

He admitted that perception exists, but said it is not the reality. Ultimately, he said, council leaders are not looking for “some quasi-government for the north”, or a fight over borders and boundaries and territory – instead, it is about cooperation. 

Devolution and transformation 

Brad Miller from Manchester Airport spoke next and discussed the upcoming £1bn transformation of the airport and why wider investment in transport is needed. He was followed by Simon Mellor, project director at The Factory, a new arts and culture facility for Manchester that Osborne said in the Spending Review will get £9m a year in 2018-19 and 2019-20. 

Chris Fletcher from the Greater Manchester Chambers of Commerce doubted that there were councils out there “brave enough” to significantly cut business rates to try to attract new enterprises to their areas. Relatively minor cuts would probably not offer a big enough financial saving to encourage companies to make such a big decision, he suggested, but those cuts would definitely affect the tax base any given council has available for spending on infrastructure and other investment. 

Fletcher also raised the thorny issue of the geography of the Northern Powerhouse, which is not strictly defined but centres on the key city-regions of Liverpool, Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, the Humber and the north east. To varying degrees, it also includes Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire, North Yorkshire and the Tees Valley. Even north Wales can be seen as a ‘gateway’ region to the Northern Powerhouse, some audience members suggested. 

The next speaker was Peter Ware from law firm Browne Jacobson, whose talk is covered in more detail over the page. 

Hazel Blears, the former MP for Salford (and latterly Salford and Eccles), who held a number of ministerial roles from 2001-09, spoke at the event on the subject of dementia and moving care closer to home, but was also asked for her views on the big issues more generally by event chair Daniel Hewitt, ITV Granada’s political correspondent. 

Like Leese, Blears emphasised that the ideas at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse are “not new”, and expressed disappointment that Labour is not leading on this agenda, instead being “embroiled in internal discussions”, with a leadership that appears “too London-centric”. 

Blears was there in her role as special adviser to PA Consulting Group, a partner for the event. Ed Parker from its government team also addressed the conference. 

Devo Manc 

The speed of change in Greater Manchester’s health economy brought about by the devolution agenda is startling – an initial announcement in February 2015, a plan by December and real change by April 2016. Katy Calvin-Thomas is helping lead the ‘Devo Manc’ health and social care transformation, on secondment from her executive director post at Pennine Care NHS FT. She told the conference: “I don’t think there’s anything massively radical about the ideas in the plan – the radical thing is that we’re doing it at scale, across 10 areas, with 37 organisations, at a pace that I’ve certainly never worked at during my career to-date.” 

Calvin-Thomas, who works under chief officer Ian Williamson (the originally billed speaker at the conference, for whom she stepped in), began her talk by highlighting the stark health inequalities in Greater Manchester, and the fact that women in the conurbation die on average 10 years earlier than they do in other parts of the country.She said: “This current system, no matter how hard we are trying, isn’t working – and it is continuing to consume vast amounts of resource that we know isn’t going to be there in the future.” 

She spoke of the wider detrimental impacts that poor health can have, from difficulties with employment and education to mental health problems. 

‘Absolute nightmare’ 

Calvin-Thomas was forthright when talking about the scale of the challenge. She said: “The devolution deal around health and social care happened very quickly for Greater Manchester, and I think we are still the only city that has health and social care as part of its devolution deal [Editor’s note: the conference took place before London’s devolution deal, announced on 15 December]. 

“There’s probably a very good reason for that – which is that it is an absolute nightmare,” she joked. “It is a very, very difficult piece [of work] to do. It’s absolutely the right thing to be doing, but it’s massively challenging.” 

She said the fact that the initiative managed to sign up all the local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and NHS provider organisations so swiftly was a great sign, but now they have to build on that work. That will “become ever more critical as we go forward into the real world next year,” she said, adding: “Our ambition is to take control of an estimated budget of about £6bn being spent on health and social care. And the strategic plan we’re in the process of writing at the moment is really built on the submission we made as part of the broader devolution and Spending Review submission in September to the Treasury.” 

Calvin-Thomas spoke of the “elusive” goal of taking activity and spending out of the acute sector and getting it closer to people’s homes, improving prevention as well as primary and community care. 

The key principle, she said, is that there should be no decisions made concerning health and social care in Greater Manchester “without Greater Manchester in the room”. 

Speaking to an audience made up mostly of businesses, campaign groups, public servants and consultants from across the region, Calvin-Thomas said: “It won’t be news to you, but something that is hard for us to think about in the NHS is the [fact that] the focus of this plan is about people and place, not organisation. The NHS, for many, many years, has focused on organisation.”


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