The Greater Manchester decision reveals our communities are poor because they are powerless

October 21, 2020   By Adam Lent

The decision to impose Covid restrictions on Greater Manchester is about far more than a political spat, says Adam Lent, it is an extreme example of our rulers’ centralist mentalities. A mentality that keeps people powerless and hence keeps them poor.

“Places need power and a sense of responsibility, accountability. Taking back control doesn’t just apply to Westminster regaining sovereignty from the EU. It means our cities and counties and towns becoming more self-governing. It means people taking more responsibility for their own communities.”

These were the words of Boris Johnson three days after becoming PM delivered, ironically enough, in Manchester.  It is a sentiment that has been ditched in favour of an act of brutal centralism that has ridden roughshod over the wishes of Greater Manchester’s elected leaders and its people.

“The problem is not that Westminster politicians and Whitehall officials have not delivered; it is that they think they can deliver the solutions from on high.”

But the decision taken yesterday in No.10 is about far more than an ephemeral political spat over Covid restrictions, or even the balance of power between local and central government. It is an extreme example of a mentality that has gripped Westminster and Whitehall for decades. A mentality that keeps people powerless and hence keeps people poor.

One doesn’t need to look far to find this Westminster mentality. It runs throughout Johnson’s speech itself. Despite the nods to empowered local areas, his words are all about what he and his Government will do to lift people in post-industrial towns out of deprivation: more trains, more police, more hospitals, more broadband and, of course, more money showered from on high by a bountiful Westminster elite.  

Johnson says the problem lies not in those towns facing deprivation but in the failure of politicians to deliver. He couldn’t be more wrong. The problem lies precisely in those towns because they are stripped of the power and the resources to decide for themselves how to end the poverty they face. The problem is not that Westminster politicians and Whitehall officials have not delivered; it is that they think they can deliver the solutions from on high.

There are multiple reasons why this approach repeatedly fails but three stand out.

It robs communities of agency leaving them without the resources, confidence and capabilities to generate change and wealth in their own areas.

It assumes a Westminster-based elite knows better than the people who face deprivation day-in and day-out what the solutions are to their challenges. A patently false belief that anyone who has ever experienced how hard mobilised local communities must fight against decision-makers’ assumptions.

“without a voice, the poor will stay poor or, at best, enjoy only brief periods of respite before a stroke of a pen in Downing Street thrusts them back into poverty.”

Thirdly, it is an utterly unsustainable model. That which is delivered from the top down can also be dismantled from the top down. Note how easily the centralised, statist welfare model of the post-war period was undermined during the 1980s. or how all of the spending on welfare, public services and regional development of the 2000s counted for little as austerity was imposed after 2010. The truth is without a voice, power and resource, the poor will stay poor or, at best, enjoy only brief periods of respite before a stroke of a pen in Downing Street thrusts them back into poverty.

All of which shows that the Greater Manchester decision is no break with the past. It may be extreme but it is profoundly characteristic of a long-established system that consistently disempowers local communities.

The only positive thing to say is that extreme acts can sometimes reveal the system for what it is. Manchester has hopefully done that. Showing that at the most crucial moment, when so much is at stake, the views of local communities and their leaders not only count for nothing but that they have no way to make them count.

“the Greater Manchester decision is is profoundly characteristic of a long-established system that consistently disempowers local communities.”

This must be the moment that people start fighting for a fundamentally different model. One that listens to the poorest communities rather than tells. One that embeds power and money in those communities rather than strips it from them. One that supports and resources communities to find their own solutions rather than ‘delivers’ those solutions for them.

They are the principles to be found in the inspirational work of Elinor Ostrom. They could be guaranteed by an act of Parliament that guaranteed the basic rights of local communities. And they can start to happen immediately through the adoption of a community power model in public services.

But however they emerge, they must emerge if our country is not to spiral into every greater disunity, poverty and decline.