Collaborative Trailblazing: GMCA Devolution Deal and SIPHER’s support to tackle inequalities

Published: 6 July 2023

Learn more about what the devolution deal means for reducing inequalities, and where SIPHER believes it can help.

In March 2023, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) agreed an historic Trailblazer Devolution deal with the UK Government. Granted new powers and with ambitions focused on tackling regional inequalities, I discuss why SIPHER is ideally placed to provide invaluable support to GMCA.

Following the election of a new UK government in late 2019, there was substantial discourse around repaying the faith of those who switched parties typically located in a loosely defined area stretching across northern England, Wales, and the Midlands. The commitment to the so termed “red wall” was to “level-up” towns, cities and regions located across this broad geographic area. In 2021, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government followed this up by announcing funding of £4.8 billion to be distributed to local authorities for “levelling-up” – a programme designed to address widening inequalities across the country.

An ambition of this funding is to contribute towards a rebalanced UK economy that is reflected in disparities between productivity levels across the regions with the median English region standing at only 65% of that generated in London (ONS, 2020). The highly centralised UK economy, when combined with a productivity deficit, has allowed for inequalities to become deep-rooted and difficult to change.

Between communities in Greater Manchester, this manifests in a difference of over 24 years in Healthy Life Expectancy figures – 73.9 years for men in Bramhall and only 49.6 in Brinnington. This underlines the challenge for the city-region. The hope is that recently devolved powers will provide the foundations to reduce neighbourhood-level inequalities. Nevertheless, significant, and sustained investment and long-term thinking, combined with greater city region power is required to achieve abiding change in Greater Manchester (Centre for Cities, 2021, UK 2070 commission) .

Devolution: a potential tool to reduce inequalities

March 2023 confirmed a step in the right direction, as Greater Manchester agreed a ground-breaking Trailblazer Devolution deal with the UK Government. This represents the biggest transfer of powers from Whitehall so far and constitutes an unparalleled shift in momentum. The deal broadens and deepens the city-regions powers, devolving clear wholesale responsibility in some core areas. In turn, it expands the devolution settlements by creating new forms of partnership and expanding levels of co-working with the UK Government. It is a blueprint of how power can be devolved across the UK to address regional disparities.

The highlight of the announcement is a Single Settlement pot allowing Greater Manchester freedom to prioritise how and where funding is spent across the city-region across a set of core policy areas. This is a welcome shift from the previous situation, in which funds were distributed for specific initiatives, in a piecemeal fashion. SIPHER’s analytical capacity can help Greater Manchester make intelligent, evidence-based decisions about where to direct its resource and which policy levers to activate (e.g. across local growth and place, transport, housing, skills and net zero). 

Supporting devolution in practice

As part of the additional responsibility granted to Greater Manchester, there is a growing need for decision-support to understand the trade-offs involved in different interventions. SIPHER’s analytic tools can inform difficult decisions around prioritising policy areas, the optimal geographical scale for effective delivery, and the parts of Greater Manchester requiring the most help. For example, there is an opportunity to build on Workstrand 7’s exemplar work in Sheffield – determining the intervention type most suitable for a specific neighbourhood. Here, intelligence generated from SIPHER modelling could be used to tailor and target different elements of the Single Settlement to a particular geographical area in Greater Manchester. When combined with new Census data and the ongoing validation of the Synthetic Population, this shows how robust evidence can be developed – underpinning the enhanced scrutiny that decision-making GMCA will be subject to. As part of the deal pre-existing governance arrangements will be strengthened by a variety of different approaches ranging from higher incentivisation for councillor attendance to a new session where Greater Manchester MPs will have the opportunity to scrutinise the GM Mayor and Leaders (in their capacity as GM Portfolio Holders).

Further details are awaited in the upcoming spending review. However, given the size of change, this won’t happen overnight. Over the next two years Whitehall and Greater Manchester will be working together to finalise the details of how this operates in practice. Moreover, the city-region will participate in the next Spending Review process scheduled for 2024 with the ambition the Settlement will go live in April 2025. Therefore, SIPHER has time to prepare and conceptualise the best way to inform decisions around policy-area trade-offs and in a way that withstands greater oversight from elected representatives.

Specific freedoms offered by devolution

The Single Settlement drew much of the attention in the aftermath of the deal being signed. But there are also other announcements – in transport, skills, environment, and housing, where new powers and/or funding are being devolved and SIPHER could support. The housing and regeneration element includes £150 million earmarked to develop brownfield land, more freedom around affordable homes and powers to tackle standards in the private rental sector – an emergent mayoral priority.

An eye-catching aspect is the announcement of a “policy sandbox” exploring the impact of various interventions on the health of tenants in the private rental sector. Here lies an opportunity for SIPHER’s Synthetic Population to build on existing Understanding Society data, a Greater Manchester housing stock dashboard, and fresh Census data to provide insight and underpin stakeholder decisions pertaining to housing in the Trailblazer Devolution deal.

SIPHER’s key areas of influence

Three key ways in which SIPHER can influence the success of the Devolution Trailblazer deal:

  • Decision-support: SIPHER’s Decision Support Tool can help Greater Manchester to decide how to get the best use and subsequent value for money from the Single Settlement budget. This will assist decision-makers when deciding what to prioritise and where to target and will ensure a robust process.
  • Housing: The consortium will map the housing and health policy system, building on work conducted to date that has connected SIPHER housing experts with housing policymakers in Greater Manchester. Additionally, SIPHER modelling will provide an innovative way of adding robustness to decisions made for housing such as the “policy sandbox” work.
  • Best practice: SIPHER’s work with GMCA demonstrates what can be achieved by bringing academics and policymakers together to work on challenging policy issues.  By disseminating examples of what has been accomplished and extracting learning from elsewhere (e.g. SIPHER’s work with Sheffield City Council and the Scottish Government) we aim to inform further research and generate impactful outputs.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author/authors.


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First published: 6 July 2023

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