Blog: Breaking down the Greater Manchester Trailblazer Devolution Deal

Written by Beth Sharratt, Policy & Research Manager at GMCVO 

What is it? 

In March 2023, Greater Manchester’s leaders signed the latest devolution deal with central government. This ‘trailblazer’ deal (one of only two in England, alongside the Conservative-led West Midlands Combined Authority) was cited in the Levelling Up White Paper, published in 2022 and builds on a series of devolution deals which began in 2014. A hugely significant step in this deal, is the commitment to a ‘single settlement’ for Greater Manchester (GM) from the next spending review, likely to be in 2025. A spending review determines a longer-term budget (usually 2-4 years) for government departments, giving the opportunity to move ahead with assurance. GM will not only be afforded this security, but the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) will no longer have to manage the complexity of many funding streams and programmes across multiple departments. If anyone can relate to how much of a gamechanger this is, it’s VCSE organisations, who will know as well as anyone how difficult short-term funding and managing complex arrangements with a myriad of different funders can be. 

A few months down the line, we’re exploring how transformational the plans are, and what they will mean for Greater Manchester’s residents. Taking a look through an ‘inclusive economy lens’, we’re particularly keen to understand how the new deal will help (or hinder) VCSE organisations working in GM’s most deprived communities. How does the trailblazer agreement help with the Greater Manchester Strategy vision of a fairer GM? 

Background & Wider Context  

Before we dive into what’s included, it’s important to clearly explain the scope of this deal. It is as helpful to know what isn’t included as it is to understand the levers to create change it contains. Firstly – this is a GM level plan focused on the areas in which there are existing powers, such as transport, economic development, work & skills & culture. It will not affect the day-to-day operations of local authorities – including adult and children’s social care or schools, and the NHS sits outside its reach. Notably it does not include any powers around benefits. The trailblazer deal, as with any devolution deal, does not take away any power or resources from local authorities. Decisions taken by central government will continue to impact on GM residents, and devolution status won’t always give GM the agency it might want – we only have to look at the recent scrapping of the Manchester leg of HS2 for an extreme example of this in action.   

It’s also important to remember that although the GMCA is an organisation with teams of people working across different directorates and projects at a GM level, the GMCA itself, formally is made up of the 10 local authority elected leaders from across the districts alongside the Mayor and Deputy Mayor. The GM project requires not just the buy-in but the proactive input of these leaders, each of whom has their own portfolio, a policy area that they lead on behalf of the GMCA. This relationship, which operated on a voluntary basis (as the association of Greater Manchester authorities, AGMA) before the establishment of the combined authority in 2011, is long-standing, mature and clear in its strategic vision. Trailblazer status is a signal from government of trust and faith it has in GM’s leadership and ability to follow through on its ambition.   

Another important piece of context is that in terms of government, England has one of the most centralised systems in the developed world, so what is considered ‘trailblazing’ here would not necessarily be considered as much to write home about elsewhere. Under a federalised system, such as that in the USA, there is far more autonomy for local leaders meaning huge geographic variation in areas such as taxation, criminal justice and education. 

The trailblazer must be viewed within the wider context of the UK and beyond. Brexit, the continuing impacts of the covid pandemic, climate change and geopolitical events all influence life chances in GM and no amount of devolution would negate this impact. Macro-economic (that’s the big stuff) factors will continue to be a driving force in the realities of everyday life in GM.  

It’s tricky not to sound contradictory when talking about the devolution detail. How can something both be ‘trailblazing’ but also not something to get too excited about? How can something be truly transformative yet not impact on some hugely significant areas of our day to day lives? For VCSE sector organisations, the impact of the trailblazer will depend very much on to what extend they rely on funding, networks or relationships at GM-level, and in what policy area they operate.  

What’s next? 

At the moment GMCA colleagues are working hard on sorting out the details with central government. An important milestone in the not-too-distant future is the autumn budget (22nd November) by which time technical details of how the single settlement will operate in practice will be decided – this will be the, big picture stuff, but it will give us a chance to see how negotiations are going and the general direction of travel. 

Understanding the detail 

I have written a briefing where I take the summary created by GMCA on each area of the deal, and respond with a brief analysis geared towards those working in the VCSE sector. In this analysis I have attempted to differentiate between the concrete, firmly agreed deliverables and the ‘commitments to co-design/or committed to a shared approach’ type language. The latter statements give us a good idea on what we can expect from any future deals and where priorities lie, but they are less indicative of any major change in the near future.  We hope this briefing will help you to decide how to focus your efforts, and to understand the changing operating environment in Greater Manchester.  

Read the briefing

To conclude 

These plans signal a significant and important shift of power, and with both the Conservatives and Labour (via their ‘Take Back Control’ bill) committed to devolution in principle, progress is likely to continue no matter who is in government after the next election. It will take time for details to emerge, and it won’t be until the introduction of the single settlement in April 2025, but it’s fair to say that this is an exciting time for Greater Manchester. GMCVO will continue to champion for approaches that tackle social and economic exclusion and for the vital role of VCSE sector organisations in making this a reality.  

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