Dispatch: Six Months as Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Eamonn Boylan, Chief Executive of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, tells us about his first six months in the post, the challenges and the lessons learned. 

Six months is a relatively short time in terms of institutions like the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and the Mayoralty of Greater Manchester. So to give an initial caveat right at the start, it’s still early days for us.

However, this is not to say that working together across Greater Manchester is something new. Here we have had solid foundations to build on, with over 30 years’ experience of our councils and other partners working together as the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) and GMCA to improve our city-region. But the Mayoral Combined Authority is fundamentally different to a Combined Authority of ten Council Leaders and Chief Executives which largely worked on consensus.

The political culture and way decisions are made is by necessity very different with our directly elected Mayor, Andy Burnham. Any new Mayor would have arrived with manifesto commitments that have been endorsed by the public and this naturally brings a new dimension to the GMCA’s work.

The Mayor’s arrival combined with the integration of a host of new organisations in to the Authority has brought a new momentum that continues to increase. We have seen a flurry of announcements and new policies from the Mayor in partnership with the other ten local authority leaders, and partner organisations. This has been a departure from the more incremental and less high profile AGMA and even GMCA forerunners that I was a part of as Deputy Chief Executive at Manchester City Council and Chief Executive at Stockport Council.

One of the main challenges for the still new Mayoral GMCA and its officers is to understand and accommodate both the constitutional power but also the potential soft power of the Mayor. The Mayor is now the Police and Crime Commissioner and Fire Commissioner. He has direct powers over transport and other financial and planning capabilities. From April he will assume the powers of the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority. This already wide remit then extends to the other Mayoral priorities like homelessness and beyond where that convening and soft power are utilised. It’s a big brief to say the least.

In his manifesto Andy Burnham made clear his commitment to ending rough sleeping by 2020 and this became a focal point of the campaign within the media. Since his election the Mayor’s soft power has probably been most notable in this work. Andy has worked with housing providers, charities, business, local authorities, emergency services, the NHS and the public at large to address this problem. A host of solutions from different organisations are being found and money is being raised to enable charities to support homeless people. Despite having few formal constitutional powers this is undoubtedly a key priority for the Mayor and across Greater Manchester progress is being made. Developing processes to support this work and other priorities that are beyond the constitutional remit are still something we have to adapt to on a regular basis.

Any look back at the six months since the Mayor’s election does mean discussing the tragic and barbaric Manchester Arena Attack. The attack affected us all, but the spirit of Manchester shone through as we faced our darkest hour. I am very proud of the way colleagues, partner agencies and the people of Greater Manchester came together in the aftermath.

The hours and days after the attack showed the significant convening power of the new Mayor. It was clear that, along with Sir Richard Leese, the Mayor had become the person the media identified and people looked to as the voice of city-region. Andy’s ability to use his role’s soft power to bring people together was then and continues to be a valuable asset to the city-region.

During the attack’s aftermath the Mayor was involved in numerous discussions with the Prime Minister and other Ministers as key decisions were made. This reflected a new style of interaction with central Government that has emerged. It is now clear that that the creation of directly elected Mayors has influenced the relationship between Greater Manchester and Government Departments. Since his election there has been effective communication between the Mayor and Senior ministers on a regular basis. Greater Manchester has always had good relationships at the highest levels of the Civil Service but since May there has been a notable shift to more political dialogue. Historically the GMCA was rarely openly political, operating in a more pragmatic manner. However we now find ourselves in a more political age and consequently dialogue with ministers now has much more prominence.   The experience of Andy Burnham in Westminster and Whitehall clearly plays a role in this.

As all this change continue apace, I’m also acutely aware each day that the GMCA is central to, but only a part of wider public sector reform agenda. One of the biggest changes for me was moving from a local authority with clear service delivery elements to the GMCA which does not have the delivery capability to do much in isolation but we have the convening ability to support empowering others like local authorities and partners in the NHS.   This makes having strong relationships vital.

The GMCA is in the process of bringing together disparate organisations with different cultures. It has not been straightforward bringing the Fire and Rescue Service in to the GMCA. GMFRS is a proud, long established organisation and this fundamental change to become part of the GMCA with the Mayor as Fire Commissioner has taken adjustment. However the opportunities for effective public service reform and collaboration between the Fire Service and the wider GMCA can and will bring benefits for people in our city-region. Transport for Greater Manchester’s relationship with the GMCA is also changing along with other parts of the Greater Manchester family. This takes time but even with some bumps in the road we are on the right track and the future is an exciting one.

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