How is ‘Devo Manc’ reshaping Greater Manchester’s transport infrastructure and who is doing it?

By Dr Mike Hodson and Professor Andrew McMeekin

With the launch of a new project based at the University of Manchester—‘Making devolution work differently: housing and transport in Greater Manchester after devolution’—Mike Hodson and Andy McMeekin take a look at what ‘Devo Manc’ really means for the city-region and beyond. [1]

On 3rd November 2014 the then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, agreed a deal with the leaders of 10 Greater Manchester local authorities to transfer powers (including transport, planning, housing, skills and economic development) to the Greater Manchester city-region [2]. The deal, characterised as ‘Devo Manc’, has produced a slew of positive symbolism but there remains much uncertainty as to what its tangible, long-term implications will be.

Its dominant representation sees a future Greater Manchester at the centre of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ of connected northern metropolitan areas. The stated aim is to address the UK’s economic imbalance towards London and the south-east of England and to create a second growth pole able to compete with global economic powerhouses. It promotes agglomeration, which implies prioritising particular areas and sectors of ‘strength’ rather than the whole of Greater Manchester. The implication is that Devo Manc will produce a selective rather than a comprehensive reconfiguration of Greater Manchester’s infrastructure. Whether this is the case, though, requires systematic research. In advance of that, we set out some initial reflections here.

Is Devo Manc about building autonomy or ceding it?

One rationale for Devo Manc is that it is about transferring power from the national state and creating the conditions for more autonomous decision-making in Greater Manchester. But there is also a rationale that suggests that Greater Manchester can’t act effectively autonomously and needs to be connected to the wider North of England as the entry cost to global urban economic competition. This contradiction informs UK state strategy, re-positioning Greater Manchester.

Fundamental to this strategy have been proposals to reconfigure spatial boundaries, governance frameworks and transport infrastructure connections in Greater Manchester. This can be understood through three representations that symbolise the contradiction between autonomy and its limits.

First, Devo Manc represents efforts to build a particular kind of strategic autonomy through a process of deepening metropolitanisation; seeking to further institutionalise collaborative relationships between the 10 local authorities of Greater Manchester (in doing so, curtailing local authorities’ autonomy) and strengthen a singular, economically competitive identity. There is a key role for transport infrastructure in enacting this view of autonomy, set out in metropolitan strategies [3], for example: through a potentially integrated, metropolitan-wide franchised bus service; an evolving Greater Manchester light rail network; and a metropolitan area smart travel card (Get Me There).

But secondly, and paradoxically, there is a strategy of selectivity, where particular parts of Greater Manchester become prioritised as key strategic ‘corridors’ (e.g. the Oxford Road Corridor) and ‘zones’. This, again, sees a mix of conventional and ‘smart’ forms of infrastructure; for example, selective bus priority lanes, segregated cycle lanes and aspirations to enhance bus priority through an upgraded Urban Traffic Control (UTC) system to structure and improve flows in to the city and other ‘priority’ areas.

Third, there are seemingly limits to Greater Manchester’s strategic autonomy; in both accepting the ‘necessity’ to compete globally and its limited ability to do so. Aiming to give the North of England sufficient heft to compete in a global urban ‘race’ with global metropolitan areas such as New York and Tokyo, there are efforts to represent stronger interconnections between the urban centres of the North. Highly symbolic forms of infrastructure are promoted [4] including: a proposed HS3 high speed rail link; potential future developments such as an underground Sheffield to Manchester road tunnel; and enhancing flows between these places through smart motorways.

Elite design and uneven geographies of autonomy

These competing views highlight that autonomy is a political issue. It can be understood as the capability to act and re-shape infrastructure in desired ways, located in specific places. Capability here can be understood as the configuration of social and material interests that can be mobilised. The capability to shape Devo Manc has been produced by a narrow coalition of national and Greater Manchester political decision makers and can be understood as an elite, top-down, design  which has limited connection to the lived experience of everyday life. This has begun to produce contradictory effects and what may be tentatively seen as uneven geographical effects of this form of ‘autonomy’.

There are three implications of this, which we briefly summarise:

1.      Materialising transport infrastructure: Realisation of this relatively new agenda appears to be patchy. Our initial reading suggests that where there is realisation it produces two forms of selective infrastructural developments. The first appears to prioritise connections between the larger cities of the North such as Manchester and Leeds rather than small and medium-sized cities and towns. Second, within Greater Manchester, there is prioritisation of connections into the urban core of Manchester and to strategic sites, such as the Trafford Centre and Manchester Airport. It remains to be systematically researched what happens in the non-emblematic and non-iconic parts of the metropolitan area.

2.      Autonomous capability to re-shape infrastructure is limited: What we can see here is the rubbing up of a national policy priority—promoting agglomeration in the North—with a new global infrastructure space that produces repeatable formulas that are embodied in infrastructures, promoted by extra-state actors and supported by new narratives [5]. Yet, there is a tension between assumptions of replicability and the urban mediation of global infrastructure. In Greater Manchester this involves coalitions of metropolitan and national political elites mobilising a narrow agenda of how to ‘entrepreneurially’ use infrastructure to re-position Greater Manchester. This is done via an increasing decentralisation of responsibilities from central government, in a context of Government austerity. This produces, as Jamie Peck has pointed out in relation to austerity in US cities [6] , the burden of responsibility to successfully realise transformation falling on those urban areas.

3.      Limited autonomy is mediated by narrow economic concerns: Devo Manc is overwhelmingly a narrative of boosting economic growth, premised on building infrastructural ‘connectivity’ between and within the urban North of England and making the North more amenable to foreign direct investment [7]. Wider sustainability concerns that were apparent in the 1990s and which, in the 2000s promoted a low carbon agenda in the UK state context, are being squeezed [8].

Autonomy, amenability, and alternatives?

Rather than pursuing a broad and inclusive form of autonomy, preparatory governance work appears to aim to make Greater Manchester amenable to infrastructural based change. Specifically this has two strands. First, UK state restructuring of Greater Manchester’s institutional and governance architectures has been strategically connected to the selective interpretation and repackaging of global urban infrastructure. Second, this repackaging is communicated through narratives that prioritise a central role for selective transport infrastructures that prioritise new forms of connection in the search for economic growth. The significance of these strategies is that they provide discursive preparation and justification for the ‘necessity’ of a fresh round of governance reconfiguration, infrastructural change and new flows of foreign direct investment. There is a need for future inter-disciplinary research to better understand these dynamics. Our research project ‘Making devolution work differently’ seeks to address these dynamics, the forms of uneven development they produce and, crucially, how alternative thinking could improve this.

This blog was originally posted on the Sustainable Consumption Institute website


[1] ‘Making devolution work differently’ has been funded by the Alliance Manchester Business School Strategic Investment Fund and involves in addition colleagues Julie Froud, Mick Moran, Anne Stafford,  Pam Stapleton, Hua Wei and Karel Williams.

[2] See Simon Jenkins 2015 for a helpful journalistic summary of Devo Manc’s development. The Guardian, 12 Feb.

[3]  TfGM, Greater Manchester Transport Strategy 2040: Our Vision [pdf]

[4]  Transport for the North, 2016 The  Northern Transport Strategy [pdf]

[5]  Keller Easterling, 2014, Extrastatecraft, Verso.

[6] Jamie Peck, 2012 Austerity urbanism: American cities under extreme economy, City, 16(6), pp.626-655.

[7]  UKTI, 2015 Northern Powerhouse Investment Pitchbook[pdf]  

[8] Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin (eds), 2014 After Sustainable Cities, Routledge.




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