largeLater this year, a fleet of distinctive yellow and black buses will begin traveling through Wigan, Bolton and parts of Salford and Bury. Publicly owned, with fares initially capped at £2, the franchised Bee network will operate across Greater Manchester until 2025. It will be the first locally controlled bus service outside London, fought over by city area mayor Andy Burnham, which Mrs Thatcher deregulated in 1986.
In a sign of the times, the Conservative government has given the green light to Mr Burnham’s flagship policy. As the next election looms, England’s two main parties are embracing greater devolution as a means of addressing regional inequalities that helped drive the Brexit vote in the referendum . Secretary of State Michael Gove, who is in charge of the escalation, and his shadow, Lisa Nandy, spoke before a group of metro mayors at the Northern Congress in Manchester last week. In the 1980s, successive Conservative governments used a legislative wrecking ball to destroy the power of local government, privatize public services and centralize political control in Westminster. But the Conservatives’ support for another coalition of mayoral powers in the north-east means that three-quarters of northern England will soon be brought under some kind of devolution agreement.
Redistribution of political power away from London and the South East is a necessary part of any future growth strategy and a much-needed response to the loss of confidence in Westminster politics. But meaningful decentralization requires fiscal and political firepower. In the absence of the former, the government’s anemic upgrade program has so far provided only sporadic and inadequate Westminster funding, delivered on a shameless pork barrel basis.
There are signs the Sunak government may be doing more in the “trailblazer” deal negotiated with Mr Burnham and West Midlands Conservative mayor Andy Street. Sector-style single allocations to local authorities would allow flexibility in setting priorities and strategic objectives. But there are good reasons to go further and faster. The central government currently pays 95p for every pound of tax paid, compared with 69p in devolved Germany. Giving local governments greater powers to raise revenue and borrow money would benefit democracy and ensure accountability. The OECD comparative study found that decentralization is positively correlated with GDP growth and local investment.
For Labor, which has a rich tradition of municipal activism, there are other compelling reasons to helm a radical devolution agenda. The decision to bring Greater Manchester’s buses back under public control follows extensive consultation which found the policy very popular. Likewise, Labor-run urban areas can be a belated vehicle for reversing the privatization and hollowing out of the public realm that began in the Thatcher era.
In his New Year’s speech, Keir Starmer deftly redeployed the Brexit slogan “Take back control”, promising a bigger place in transport, job support, energy, housing, culture and childcare that power. Ms Nandy reiterated that message in Manchester last week. The electoral promise to end the era of destructive competition and the outsourcing of public services is both radical and popular. Combined with ambitious national investment in post-industrial regions to drive a green transition, it could be the cornerstone of England’s new political solution. Labor should ensure Greater Manchester’s looming bus revolution is just the beginning of its devolution journey.