Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Republic of Mancunia

With the consultation on whether to have an elected mayor for Manchester closing today, I thought I'd reproduce the article I did for the current issue of the Mule newspaper. Enjoy.

“Manchester has a Harvey Nicholls!” The shock on the face of my Londoner friend was clear. I felt like assuring him that we had running water too, and had finally gotten the hang of this new-fangled electricity. It was the Labour conference of 2008 that brought the London media elite north, with many it seems expecting to still see the bomb craters of the Luftwaffe amongst the cobbles. The incomprehension of many that civilisation did not stop at the Watford gap was comical, yet profoundly tragic. The attitudes of this country, the view of ‘the provinces’, has not changed since Orwell’s day. The M6 is just the road to Wigan Pier.

Perception is important, and there can be little doubt that the 2008 conference, and the shift of the BBC to Greater Manchester, has a great deal to do with the government’s decision to delegate more powers to a city region. Economically the case is already proven. The City Region of Greater Manchester already accounts for a fifth of the North’s economy, adding £47 billion to the UK accounts. This is more than Wales, which has its own Assembly, on both a raw numbers and per capita basis. With 3.2 million people after this year’s structural changes, it has a greater population than 5 of the EU member states. It has the largest airport outside of the South East, the largest media centre outside London and a powerful University presence worth £670 million.

Yet since 1986, with the dissolution of the Metropolitan Counties, the city has been punching far below its weight. Victories, such as acquiring the Commonwealth games in 2002, have been few a far between. The siphoning off of £500 million designated for improvement of the Metrolink system to in effect prop up London’s Jubilee Line in 2004 ensured that many voted against the congestion charge this year, sceptical that money would be forthcoming. The revoking of Manchester’s right to open a super-casino after a fair contest, meant that the city spent £2 million in good faith on a bid that could not be won. While Manchester is paralysed by the effect of deregulation, Transport for London remains a public concern. When politicians and civil servants keep public transport in public hands where they live and work, one must conclude that they consider it to be the most reliable system. Which begs the question why, and by what right, they subject the rest of the country to chaos. That such a progressive city as ours pours millions into the pockets of Stagecoach boss Brian Souter, an anti-gay, anti-union fundamentalist, rather than back into the local economy via a public service is a travesty.

With all this in mind, it is important that pressure is applied to our political leaders for greater devolution of powers. The current pilot scheme is unclear. As the motley crew of different councils and local authorities make a grab for funds, there is a danger it will remain so. That is why political reform must come before economic reform. The Manchester City Region needs its own authority to match its own identity. It needs a council drawn from each of the fifteen districts, and most importantly it needs a mayor. We can then strip away the bureaucracy of the North West regional assembly, and confusing muddle of the county councils. Each district can elect a local council for local issues, and a representative for the City Council. The entire region would also vote for a mayor, who would chair this council, and determine its agenda.

With the political infrastructure in place, this city would have a voice on the national stage, while its citizens would still have a direct link with their representatives. Under the current arrangement, impotent and anonymous local councils take decisions which people then ascribe to national government, and complain to their MPs about. This is harmful to all. Constituents do not get their problems addressed, councils are not scrutinised, and MPs divert time from holding the government to account to being social workers. A devolved assembly would bring transparency to the system. In addition, a Greater Manchester Assembly would also have the clout to actively pursue those who flout the law. The bully boy antics of Tesco against Stockport Council in 2005-06 over Tesco’s violation of planning regulations were committed because the company assumed, rightly, that the council would lack the will or resources to fight them. The police would likewise become democratically accountable to a single body across the city, removing the “us and them” divide that has dogged Manchester since the Moss Side riots, if not since Peterloo.

The strength and determination with which this old, industrial giant has renewed itself is something every citizen should be proud of. It has survived the decimation of its industry, the machinations of Margaret Thatcher and the devastation of the IRA, and it has come back stronger. Though I like the weather, I am not a North-Westerner. Though I like the history I am not a Lancastrian. I am a Mancunian, and my city deserves a voice: as one city, united.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Education, education, education...

Melissa Benn's condemnation of the 11-plus, as always, comes with the best of intentions. With fox-hunting gone, there are few issues remaining that have the totemic power to flare the passions between Left and Right. However, she, Fiona Millar and Comprehensive Future make three crucial mistakes.

The first is that they have won the argument politically. While none of the three main parties are committed to selection on academic ability, selection upon the grounds of parental wealth, geography, religious faith and interview technique continues. All of these are surely less equitable than testing upon ability. Surely, if selection is to be ended, Comprehensive Future would be better using its energies against these discrepancies, rather than a smattering of remaining grammars?

Secondly, they allow ideology to trump good practice. If an LEA wishes to continue with a selective system, then to dictate from Westminster that it may not do so, regardless of the views of local people, seems to go against the progressive spirit. We see the apotheosis of this in Northern Ireland. There a reticent community is being forced, by a woman who educates her own children in Eire, to renege upon a system that consistently delivers the best GCSE, A-level, and Oxbridge entry rates in the UK. Why this system is to be torn down few can say, especially given that Ulster's secondary moderns outperform Britain's comprehensives, thwarting the argument that little value is added.

Lastly, they do not consider what the effects of their actions are. Rather it seems, they consider only what they would wish them to be. The effect of comprehensive education has not been to make every school a grammar, it has been to make every school a secondary modern. The result has been to push the best grammars not into state control, but into the private sector, the opposite of the progressive aim. Far from bringing about a classless society, the comprehensive system has entrenched class status, and protected the middle class children of journalists who eulogise it from the clever poor. The rich pay the fees for private school, the middle classes move to a good catchment area. Only the poor are condemned.

I do not doubt the author's zeal, nor that of her compatriots. I merely invoke the law of unforseen circumstances. It is often the cry of these groups that we must care about the education of the many, not the few. I concur. Fix the comprehensive system, and then we may debate about Kent and Trafford.