The latest announcement of local authority job losses planned in Manchester has again raised the criticism that northern towns are to bear the brunt of public service cuts.
Warning of a disproportionate impact on the north, the leader of Manchester city council, Sir Richard Leese, said earlier this month the council was preparing for a 17% cut in its workforce – 2,000 jobs – over the next 12 months.
The impact of public service cuts on the northern economy and ways to create a new, post-cuts landscape were discussed at a Guardian Public roundtable event last week, attended by chief executives and local authority heads from across the north, as well as leaders from the third and private sectors.
The debate, which was organised in partnership with the Manchester Business School, agreed that partnerships will become increasingly important in dealing with the challenge of reform, together with better public efficiency and innovation.
At the roundtable, Leese said he believed the coalition cuts would be far worse, in terms of the impact on Manchester, than those imposed under the previous Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher.
But he pointed out that the city had built a far more diverse economy over the past 30 years so while Manchester now faces what he described as "the worse public sector cuts ever", the private sector in the city is acting as a buffer, and Leese remained optimistic that the city's economy would remain resilient.
The importance of cities
There was, however, some divergence between the leaders about the role of cities in being powerhouses for the northern economy as a whole. Andrew Carter, director of policy and research at the Centre said there was no argument over the importance of cities, with the evidence to prove this being "overwhelming".
According to Carter, three-quarters of private sector jobs are in cities. "Cities do not contribute to the national economy, they are the national economy," he said. Since research suggests cities are economic hubs, it's important to think of them in those terms.
"The performance of Manchester in a wider sense influences the neighbourhoods and boroughs," he said. That gained agreement from many round the table, including Leese, who pointed out that neighbouring towns, while keen to retain their own identity, recognised the importance of economic links into Manchester.
Others felt the focus should not just be on cities. Carole Hassan, chief exective of Local Government Yorkshire and Humber said sub-regions around Leeds, Sheffield and the Humber had, since 2004, been encouraging collaborative work beyond the boundaries of individual cities. There was a need for shared leadership and a focus on building capacities in communities.
Sorting the flowers from the weeds
There was considerable debate on the role of the third sector in shaping the future landscape of public service delivery, after the cuts. Steve Gallagher, a former chief executive of Knowsley council and now a director of consultancy Aperia, said there has been little previous attention to which charities were providing effective services.
As he put it, public policy has "let 1,000 flowers bloom without actively thinking which of those flowers are glorious to behold and which are weeds".
Alex Whinnom, chief executive of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation, agreed that there was a need for more focus on real impact but the sector was likely to suffer heavy losses in core staff given the level of forthcoming local authority cuts and in spite of the 'big society'. He cited an example where one organisation had 150 staff and had to cut them to 30.
The voluntary sector thrives differently in different places, said Whinnom. In greater Manchester, he said, there are at least 11,000 voluntary groups, at least half of which are tiny, with turnover of less than £5,000 a year.
Big society, localism and innovation
Steve Mycio, deputy chief executive at Manchester city council, said the conundrum at the heart of government was big society and localism. "If you take away the jargon, I would argue that we have been doing big society in this city for many years," he said.
"Localism has got to be beneficial and we are looking at evidence and ways of implementing policies as local authority spending is less in the foreseeable future than during the years of growth."
Several participants pointed out a counter-trend towards larger, national contracts, awarded by government departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions, which tended to exclude organisations and charities with better local knowledge and connections.
Several people reported that there were numerous examples of innovation already happening across the region. Councillor Roger Stone, leader of Rotherham metropolitan borough council said work around food and healthy eating had been highly successful in the town, such as teaching children that vegetables don't just come from the supermarket by giving them small garden plots.
Similarly, the high-profile Mininstry of Food project involving celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was set up in Rotherham and while initially, the project was tough, giving Rotherham "a bad name" it has persisted. There is now a social enterprise based in the town centre that provides lunches and offers cooking lessons and the scheme could expand to other areas.
Another innovative project in Rotherham is a scheme to deliver books to children in the area, based on a similar one run in the US by country singer Dolly Parton. "In Rotherham, we have the Imagination Library – we brought Dolly Parton to Rotherham," he said. "It delivers 60 free books for 0 to 5 year olds using her name and the company behind it."
But there can also be difficulties in succesfully replicating small projects from one location to another. A highly successful scheme in Calderdale that has dramatically reduced reoffending rates for women ex-offenders by combining recovery services has proved difficult to transfer to other locations.
Su Maddock, co-author of the report, Recovery Begins with Hope, into the recovery approach in mental health and a research fellow at Manchester Business School, said that "a real barrier to the adoption of effective personal recovery services was that their impact did not translate into a recognised financial return."
One answer may be a social form of franchising. Alison Gordon, interim director of policy and performance at New Economy, one of six Association of Manchester Authorities commissions whose purpose is to create economic growth and prosperity for the people in the city, described a small project, called Franchising Works – a pilot scheme to support unemployed people – with greater success, because it is supported by a franchise brand.
Alongside innovation the public sector would still need to pay closer attention to tackling existing high areas of public spending. In Manchester, said Leese, the council is trying to target complex families.
Families, who were "almost certainly" going to be benefit dependent and over-represented in the criminal justice system, were more likely to use NHS services and be in poor health, Leese said. These families were a "black hole" for public services and the answer would be to take a more "joined-up" approach.
This roundtable was sponsored by key sponsor Ernst & Young, Local Government Yorkshire and Humber and Hay Group. It was run in partnership with Manchester Business School
At the table
Editor, Guardian Public, (Chair)
Director, GMCVO (Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation)
Director of policy and research, Centre for Cities
Chief executive, Manchester Investment Development Agency Service (Midas)
Chief executive, Local Government Yorkshire and Humber
Dr Su Maddock,
Research fellow, Manchester Business School
Interim director of policy and performance, New Economy
Leader, Rotherham Metropolitan borough council
Managing partner, regional growth fund, Ernst & Young
Sir Richard Leese,
Leader, Manchester city council
Deputy chief executive, Manchester city council
Associate director, Hay Group