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Manchester mayor Andy Burnham holding a press conference.
Andy Burnham is threatening legal action against central government over lockdown measures in Manchester. PA/Martin Rickett

Coronavirus pandemic has pitted England’s mayors against London

The anger was evident in Andy Burnham’s voice as he declared that Greater Manchester would stand firm in the face of any UK government attempt to impose a “tier three” restriction on the northern English city-region without adequate financial compensation. The mayor and other local leaders were unanimous in opposing the government’s plans as “flawed and unfair”. A statement from Burnham, the two deputy mayors and Greater Manchester’s ten council leaders declared: “We are fighting back – for fairness and for the health of our people in the broadest sense.”

As cities in the North of England have struggled with coronavirus infection rates, local leaders across the political spectrum have been flexing their muscles.

Covid-19 has fully exposed the inadequacies of the relationship between central and other tiers of government at the regional and local level in England. It has also made it difficult to deny entrenched structural inequalities. We might all be in the same storm, but we are definitely not all in the same boat.

These two truths are closely intertwined: there is a relationship between the highly centralised political system in England and inequality. As Burnham and his counterpart in the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, have long argued: political decisions taken by a small Westminster elite reflect the reality contained within the circle of the M25 London orbital motorway. They do not reflect the reality of life outside of this circle. And that perpetuates inequalities.

Large city-regions in the North, for example, faced the largest spending cuts after the 2008 financial crash with one estimate claiming that “on a per capita basis, Liverpool has seen the largest cut”. Transport spending on London and the South-East far outstrips transport spending in the North and, during the pandemic, there has been evidence of “a gaping North-South divide on access to testing”.

The political leadership being demonstrated by combined authority mayors across the North is all the more striking in its contrast to the absence of clear and coherent leadership from the centre. While Rotheram and local authority leaders in Liverpool accepted the imposition of tier-three COVID restrictions, they were quick to emphasise in a joint statement that “it was made clear to us that government would be doing this regardless of if we engaged with then or not” and stressed that “we have not yet reached an agreement on the wider economic support package that we require”.

The focus on the inadequacies of the economic support on offer had already been signalled in an open letter to government signed by Burnham, Rotheram, Dan Jarvis the metro-mayor of the Sheffield city-region, Jamie Driscoll, the metro-mayor of the North of Tyne and Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council and deputy mayor of Greater Manchester.

The long road to devolution

Leaders across the North have signed various devolution deals since 2014. But the pandemic has reinforced a growing feeling that the original terms of the deals are inadequate and that the devolution journey needs to be accelerated. The horse-trading that has accompanied the latest government negotiations with Lancashire and the Liverpool City Region, resulting in different restrictions and funding in each area despite both being in tier three, should come as no surprise. It reflects the transactional nature of the original deals negotiated individually between government and each area.

Local leaders have clamoured to take decisions locally. As care homes struggled in April, Burnham called on the national government to use the expertise of local authorities and their “well established logistics systems” about the easing of restrictions when infection rates remained high in their areas.

A sign warns people in Liverpool that they are in a high-risk area.

This was followed in June by their joint concern about the lack of clear data to support decisions around local lockdowns. By September, Burnham was calling on the government to reconvene Cobra with representation for all of the English regions alongside London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The need to take decisions locally has never been more obvious. From sourcing PPE to housing rough sleepers to using local expertise in track and trace systems. The inadequacies of PPE supplies saw Greater Manchester set up its own PPE taskforce to provide a central system of procurement and distribution for frontline workers.

It has all served to teach many people who didn’t already know it that local authorities matter. Metro-mayors are proving their worth by using their collective voice to draw attention to the plight of their city-regions and they have been crucial in acting as convenors and coordinators of their local authorities. Yet it is local authorities that have the power to make a difference to track, trace and test systems. It is local authorities that control public health and social care. It is local authorities that run the public services which make a difference to people’s lives.

It is therefore alarming to note the extent to which local authorities have been weakened financially, first by austerity and now by the pandemic. The government has promised English local authorities an additional £1bn of financial support on top of the £3.6bn Towns Fund already committed. But this looks set to fall short of what is needed to cover the economic fallout from coronavirus.

Burnham’s declaration of defiance was a long time in the making. For years there has been a growing appetite for local control and an end to the inadequacies of an over-centralised political system and the related structural inequalities. This all existed long before Covid but the pandemic has certainly highlighted and accelerated existing trends.

It is not that Northern leaders have suddenly found a voice. Since their election in May 2017, metro-mayors have combined to lobby central government for further devolution. Current calls for a seat at the Cobra table are a reminder of their earlier pleas to have representation in the Brexit negotiations. Their political voice is therefore not new. But that voice is finally starting to be heard.

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