Q & A with Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester Council

richardleesepicAs Greater Manchester moves towards more devolved powers Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester Council, talks to New Start about poverty, progressive procurement, and building scale in the social sector.

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Q. Greater Manchester is in many ways an economic success story. What do you see as key to that success?

A. There was a recognition in late 1990s that economies don’t perform according to local authority boundaries and that the closer you can get interventions organised around the level of the real economy the more likely they are to be successful. We took Greater Manchester as being an approximation to our functional economic area and the first Greater Manchester economic strategy was in 2001. We spent many years pursuing devolution of economic levers and went to government nine years ago and this ultimately led to the combined authority. We invented something that is robust and transferable in non-metropolitan settings too. What you have is collaborative working, an evidence base, good governance and leadership and a willingness to innovate.

Another thing we’ve been able to do through Total Place and Whole Place Community Budgets is to understand and build a functioning relationship between economic and social policy. The core of that is work. Work is fundamental whether you are dealing with troubled families or re-offending. Work is an absolutely crucial element that needs to be tackled.

Q. Despite the economic success the region still has grave social problems with 30% of the population economically inactive and 1 in 10 in extreme poverty.

A. It’s true we have enormous levels of deprivation in the city and across the whole of Greater Manchester. What you need to do is create jobs. We need to improve education and make our skills offer relevant to where the economy is and where growth is. For those furthest from the labour market we have to analyse needs on an individual basis and tailor interventions and support.

We have launched Working Well for those who went through the Work Programme and came out the other side. We have now agreed to a 50,000 place programme. It’s similar to Troubled Families in that people are given a lead worker that can commission a number of interventions as or when needed. It’s about cross disciplinary working.

Poverty is an enormous drag on the economy. Poorer people don’t have money to buy stuff and take more in terms of public funding. People think that public funding is about parks and libraries but actually the vast majority of funding goes to a small number of people and if we reduce that by creating more independence we could spend more money on libraries and parks.

Q. You’ve begun a journey of progressive procurement at the council and within local partners. What have been the benefits of that?

A. Through the work the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has done analysing our spend we’ve shown were pretty good at procuring at the local level and we have got better. One way we can ensure that growth benefits more people is to look again at our own procurement. We have a range of partners – hospitals and further education colleges – all paying the living wage. Some of those partners were very actively working with us to make jobs available to local residents. The two universities in central Manchester used to employ virtually no local people now employ 100s of people locally. It’s changed their relationship with their immediate neighbours so that in places like Ardwick – one of the most deprived areas of the city – which used to see the university as the enemy now see them positively as the place they can get a job.

Q. A report on a Civil Economy for Manchester highlighted the strength on the social sector but also the need for it to be stronger. What are your thoughts on how the social sector can be more linked into the economic story of the region?

A. One of things the social sector lacks is the scale and capacity to be able to do everything we’d like it to do. We have to grow it organically over a period of time. There’s an organisation in Manchester that is an exception. It’s a social enterprise called Big Life which has grown and is now providing health services and running schools and our Working Well programme. We need more of those. Strengthening neighbourhood organisations is also very important.

We also need to do the same for the social sector as we’re doing in the commercial sector – to increase opportunities for local suppliers. Programmes like Community Chest allows the social sector to get a foot in the door and be able to bid for contracts.

We can do more to improve the links between the business and the social sectors. We had a working party last year looking at ethical procurement and we’re going to do a bit more work on that. I guess the task we have within our procurement is how we increase the social value element of it while at same time being cognisant of the financial position we are in. It has to be social value that adds value and is not a cost.

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine
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