And so the organisation formerly known as the North West Regional Assembly – ‘4NW’ – has been read its last rites by the Coalition, and will grace the headlines no more. Which is sort of the point isnt it? It didnt grace the headlines and so you might be forgiven for thinking that its demise was a welcome part of the bonfire of the quangos.
The evidence for the prosecution would include the fact that we the tax-payer funded the organisation to little effect. But it’s when you put it in the context of the governace of the North West that things get a little more equiviocal. Once the idea of a devolved region was scuppered (by the disastrous referendum on that subject for the North East), 4NW ended up as a secretariat for the NW Leaders Council – pretty much the only place where all the leaders of the local councils of the region got together. Again – so what?
The most powerful public body in the NW is the North West Development Agency – which as well as giving out many hundreds of millions in grants, is also the distributing agency for a pretty huge wad of EU money too. The NWDA also authored the Regional Economic Strategy which guides its investment decisions. It answers to a Board made up of a mixture Council and business leaders with a few other worthies thrown in but it is not democratically accountable. The Chair of that Board is pretty influential. The previous incumbent of that post, Brian Gray, was the former head honcho of Baxi the heating people, and the new one is Robert Hough. He used to be Deputy Chair of the massive Peel Holdings (think Trafford Centre, Salford Quays/Media City and all the land along the Ship Canal) and his NWDA predecessor went straight from that post to chair the Peel company that runs Media City – Peel Media. Can you see a name that is starting to pop up here a bit? Peel will also benefit massively from a huge NWDA project around the ‘Mersey Gateway’, and over a £100M of public money went into Media City.
So – on one side an unelected Board running a very powerful public body from which – rightly or wrongly – Peel Holdings benefits considerably. On the other – the democratically constituted 4NW who, up until the recent announcement, were for the first time co-authoring the next regional economic policy. The Chair of the Leaders Board, one Sir Richard Leese, has made it plain that they won’t go without a fight. It should also be noted that the reclusive boss of Peel Holdings is a prominent Conservative.
Speaking of Sir Richard brings us to the other way that the wings of the NWDA are currently being clipped – by the creation of Greater Manchester as a ‘City Region.’ This brings considerable devolved powers and possibly control of funds from both Whitehall and the NWDA. The city region is governed by another council of leaders – this time the council leaders of the ten districts that make up the former county of Greater Manchester. All laudably accountable.
The Coaltion has made the decentralising of powers from Whitehall a central plank of its vision, and the word on the street is that they quite like the City Region concept. The policy nugget that could radicalise this picture is the Coalition’s promise to allow referendums [or, for the benefit of pedants ‘referenda’] on whether the country’s ten biggest cities should have elected mayors. A Manc Boris anyone? It is by no means clear whether such a move would apply to the city of Manchester or the city region – but one could well imagine the concept being popular. A boost to public interest in local government would certainly be welcome… it is the list of ambitious former celebrities eying up a big chair in the Town Hall that scares this correspondent, as would any link between such an incumbent and, er, prominent NW business interests. Whatever happens – it’s not going to be dull.
And the relevance of all this to the teeming throng of McFly readers is this… The NWDA, as well as being unaccountable, is all about Gross Value Added (that’s pure business growth to you and me) whatever bells and whistles they put on it. Whilst this also features very large amongst the policy drivers of Sir Richard and his elected colleagues, we can be confident that it is tempered by real notions of social justice and, increasingly, sustainable development. Watch this space..