Work needed to bridge living standards gap, experts say

Date published: 11 February 2019

Further devolution of powers is ‘urgently needed’ to improve quality of life in Greater Manchester, according to an economic progress report of the city region.

A panel of experts has highlighted the conurbation has ‘world-class strengths’ but major steps are required to reduce social disparity and improve living standards.

The independent review, commissioned by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), has made recommendations on how to bridge the gap with London and the south east.

They include making sure residents have access to learn the skills the city region needs and improving public health.

Chair of the review panel, Professor Diane Coyle, says further devolution is required as the ‘centralisation of policy-making in Whitehall has contributed to weaknesses in the UK’s economic performance’.

This comes a matter of months since Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham issued a similar plea to ministers to allow the city region to ‘take control of its own destiny’.

University of Cambridge’s Professor Coyle said: “If productivity is only increasing in London, this will be no more sustainable than a plane flying on just one engine, either politically or in terms of economic growth.”

“Productivity, and therefore living standards, in London and the south east of England are higher than every other part of the country.

“Further devolution of powers is urgently needed to deliver sustained improvements in living standards for the people of Greater Manchester.”

The report highlights Greater Manchester’s strengths in health innovations and world-leading advanced material production, such as Graphene.

Strengths in manufacturing, digital and creative industries are also referenced, in addition to the city region’s success the number of business start-ups.

However, experts say more needs to be done to reduce social inequality and boost productivity, particularly in sectors such as retails and social care where there is widespread low pay and productivity.

The findings will be used to shape GMCA’s Local Industrial Strategy, currently being developed with central government.

Mr Burnham said: “This review sets out just what we need to do to propel our economy forward and deliver prosperity to all who live and work here.

“While there is much to be optimistic about in this report, there are some stark messages that should come as no surprise: regional inequality still persists, and we’re still facing barriers beyond our control when it comes to growth.

“We can deliver the Northern Powerhouse we’ve been promised but we will need to continue to work closely with ministers to do so.”

Recommendations include prioritising work to commercialise Graphene, secure devolved funding to improve infrastructure, create an integrated transport network and develop a skills and education funding framework.

Schemes working towards these goals are already underway, such as the Mayor’s Good Employment Charter to drive improved standards and its Transport Strategy 2040, with plans for a more integrated network of public transport.

In September, Mr Burnham called for more responsibility and proper resources to deliver the city region’s goals, saying devolution has ‘unlocked new energy and new thinking when the country needs it most’.

And in response to the prosperity report released on Friday, business secretary Greg Clark MP said ‘more decisions and more powers are being placed in the hands of local communities.’

He said: “This report is an important step in identifying the potential of Greater Manchester while building on its world-renowned strengths in areas like health innovation and advanced materials.

“The Government is working hand-in-hand with the Combined Authority to deliver an ambitious Local Industrial Strategy that ensures Greater Manchester and its businesses at the forefront of growing industries like AI and clean growth.”

Greater Manchester’s lead for economy, Sir Richard Leese, said: “We’ve got some world-class strengths that we absolutely must play to when developing our Local Industrial Strategy, but we must also recognise that over decades we have seen a rise in lower productivity sectors and lower skilled jobs.

“We need to take on board the recommendations in this report to increase productivity in these areas and use the opportunity to reduce social disparities and boost wages.

“We are one of the UK’s leading digital city regions and we must take advantage of that.

“Through the growth of e-commerce, online shopping, and home deliveries, the retail sector, a major employer for Greater Manchester, will quickly find itself at the forefront of technology and innovation.

“We must capitalise on that and ensure the resulting rewards are passed onto our citizens.”

James Illingworth, Local Democracy Reporter

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