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Manchester, devolution and Brexit – Andy Burnham Q&A

Philip Brown, professor of social change at Salford University, discusses crucial civic issues of the moment with Andy Burnham, the former UK government minister who is bidding to become the first elected mayor of Greater Manchester, the city recently named as one of the most influential in Europe.

Brexit and devolution

Q: Wherever you go in Greater Manchester the promise of devolution [the shift of power away from the dominant UK capital, London, that has created more powerful, regional city government] is seen to offer massive opportunities. But in light of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, how do you think Greater Manchester can respond to the wider European and global challenges ahead?

It’s a complex world, isn’t it? It’s a difficult picture in many ways and difficult to make sense of it. I feel the referendum result in the end, if you strip everything away, is a reflection of a dysfunctional political system. Because what we have here in this country, and have always had, is a highly centralised system around London and the M25. And then within that system, the London perspective on life tends to dominate the policies that come out. So consequently there are lots of parts of the country that don’t feel that policy is made for them. And I think that has fed some of the alienation and the sense of abandonment that is felt in some communities across the country. It’s a big jump isn’t it from your small local council battling with an issue to Westminster. That’s kind of what we’ve got in England.

So it’s something of a life raft I would say, the whole idea of devolution in England. It’s something for us to grab now and say, well hang on let’s develop a real, practical, credible response to Brexit that works for us. And I think we are more likely to be able to do that at this level rather than trying to solve everything from that Westminster level.

Q: Greater Manchester is a really interesting place because you have got those thriving conurbations around the centre – that square mile of Manchester and other boroughs which are thriving. But you’ve also got other boroughs that are really struggling and quite high on the deprivation index. How can you as a mayor ensure there is fairness across the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester?

There’s a sense that some places have been neglected or left behind. If you look at the voting at the [EU] referendum it kind of reveals a picture and a pattern which is the areas that perhaps have had most investment in recent times, have felt they were moving forward – well they were happy with their lot and voted remain because life was working well.

If you look particularly across the north of Greater Manchester the boroughs there, I can maybe include Leigh, my own constituency, feel that things haven’t been fair. They have not had the help they needed as they were making the transition from the loss of big traditional industry into the new economy. They see the city centre in the last 20 years, they see Media City, the airport, they see east Manchester and there’s a kind of “well what about us?”. And I think for me that is the next 20-year challenge in Greater Manchester.

The centre and places around it have improved remarkably in the last 20 years. I think we are all proud of that. We all use the city centre, we all go to these places and I think everyone takes pride in that. But I feel the next 20 years should be about applying the same ambition that has been applied to the centre to Bolton, to Oldham, to Leigh, to Denton, to Stockport. To see if we can lift the whole of Greater Manchester and achieve that phrase that you hear used a lot – inclusive growth. I think that is what we want to see. A sense of a place that is on the up everywhere.

Aerial view of Manchester and its iconic Central Library.

To really capture that sense, one of the policies in my manifesto – or our manifesto because we have been consulting the public on it – is a free bus pass to all 16 to 18-year-olds in Greater Manchester. Because I have a strong sense that it is quite fragmented. The young people I have met over the course of the consultation on the manifesto who say to me they never go to the city centre – even if they live two miles from the city – they never go there because they don’t feel it’s for them. And I feel we’ve got to break that down and what I wanted to do with that simple policy of the bus pass is just send a message to every young person in Greater Manchester is that this place yours to explore, to build, to shape, to own really. And I think at the moment, we don’t have that sense.

To the young people who live in those outlying communities who feel that they aren’t being included in the changes that are taking place and if we are going to succeed in the future we have really got to break that down.


Q: Why you have chosen to make homelessness such a significant priority in your mayoral campaign?

It’s a growing issue, isn’t it? And a rising concern for the public. People see increasing numbers of people huddled in the doorways – not just of the city centre – but of all of Greater Manchester. The figures on rough sleeping show that. It’s something that causes people here great concern. Most people from Greater Manchester; their mindset is we don’t just walk past the people huddled in those doorways, we worry about them, we want to do something to help them. So I think it is right that it is an issue in this mayoral campaign and it is right that candidates like myself put forward some plans to do something about it.

Q: And how do you think homelessness links to a wider housing crisis that we are experiencing?

Yeah, rough sleeping is something different, to the broader problem we have with homelessness. People perhaps staying with friends, sofa surfing and all of that. There is a much bigger homelessness problem than the rough sleeping we see directly before us on our streets. I think it’s a product of a failed Westminster housing policy over many decades – under all governments.

A failure to build enough affordable homes to rent and an obsession with owner-occupation. There’s been an imbalance I think in housing policy on a national level for a long time which has created a housing crisis as we know it in parts of the country, here included. So it’s a difficult problem to solve. It’s also linked to provision under mental health service, drug and alcohol services … a whole range of other services to support people so it’s a complex problem.

We will focus first on rough sleeping because that’s the most immediate challenge as well as then developing a long-term strategy to tackle homelessness.

Homeless people in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens in April, 2017. Tim Brockley/Flickr, CC BY

Q: What’s the difference that you think an elected mayor can bring to bear on resolving some of these long term issues that has not necessarily been the case in previous organisations of governance?

It’s an interesting question. I think firstly I would say, focus. An ability to get people to gather around the same issue and ask them to address the same question. Obviously, leadership comes into that: a single person able to take an issue like this and prioritise it and issue a call for action is what I have been doing. But then also, the interesting thing maybe is an ability to work differently. Not be trapped in the council structure or the Westminster structure but to bring together a new network of people who might do something about it and that’s my intention here.

My plan is not to go banging on the door of Westminster and demanding more money to tackle the problem. What I am saying is, let’s see what we can do amongst ourselves to deal with this problem. The idea is that we set up a homelessness action network across Greater Manchester led by Ivan Lewis MP and councillor Beth Knowles. The invitation is going out to any individual or organisation who wants to make a contribution – or business or charity or whoever it may be – to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness in Greater Manchester. Many of them we hope will be here today. And really then maybe allow that network to work differently.

Rather than sitting in a room and writing reports as often the public sector does - and we have all been part of those processes before and it can take time – help people to make a more direct and immediate difference. I have asked Ivan and Beth to say let’s create more local solutions and do them quickly without any great bureaucratic process. That’s certainly the intention I have got here. So it’s three things, focus, leadership and then that encouragement or signal for people to work differently and bring in a range of different voices to help solve the problem.


Q: I work quite a lot with social housing providers across Greater Manchester. What role do you feel that social housing providers can play alongside your vision for an inclusive, growing Greater Manchester?

A very big role. If I have got a criticism of Greater Manchester in recent times it would probably be that we haven’t been as focused as we should be on affordable homes to rent. And by that I mean truly affordable to rent. That word affordability is used a lot in the context of housing and the question is, well affordable to who? Our goal here should be to have a decent home that is affordable to everyone at every level of the income scale. We don’t have that at the moment. Sadly far too many people and families are living in homes that are beneath the decent homes standard.

We have a lot of private landlords – many of them absent private landlords who don’t really care much for the state of the property they rent out. Sadly that drags communities down. So I want a new focus on truly affordable housing. But also use it to revitalise some of the towns that I was talking about a moment ago. Those towns across the north of Greater Manchester. Build more higher quality, affordable residential developments. Those places won’t be the retails centres that they once were and I think that’s a opportunity to bring new life into those places and regenerate them so social housing providers have got a massive part to play in that. I have met them already and had a discussion around these issues.

I do want to focus the Greater Manchester Housing Fund on this kind of development. It’s going to be great to work with them and see if we can relieve Greater Manchester of this housing crisis that has gripped us for too long.

Eight candidates are bidding to be mayor of Greater Manchester. The others are: Sean Anstee, Conservative; Mohammad Aslam, Independent; Jane Brophy, Liberal Democrats; Marcus Farmer, Independent; Stephen Morris, English Democrats; Shneur Odze, UKIP; and Will Patterson, Green Party.

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