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Greater Manchester (GM) helped give birth to the Northern Powerhouse. It was the first city to negotiate a devolution deal, blazing a trail for the others to follow. As the front runner for city government over recent decades, GM will always be the first place an observer will look towards to check on the health of city devolution.
The mayoralty was boosted even before it officially came into being when former cabinet minister Andy Burnham threw his hat into the ring for the Labour mayoral nomination. This signalled to the public the importance of the role, which in GM comes with a more extensive set of powers than in any other city region, including over crime, health and social. But six months on from his clear victory in May’s election, is GM still the leading light of devolution?
One of the key ways Burnham has made an impression is by using his high profile and mayoral platform to represent the concerns of people living in GM – and across the North – on the national stage. In particular, he has worked closely with Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of Liverpool City Region, to harry government for greater investment in northern transport. The two mayors of the north west helped to put the Northern Powerhouse Rail concept at the top of the political agenda over the summer, and led the indignant response in the north to the cancellation of full rail electrification between Leeds and Manchester.
Moreover, Burnham displayed great leadership and visibility in the aftermath of the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena in May, leading the city’s response and mourning. His extensive range of powers has also enabled him to wade into debates that other mayors can have less influence over. For example, as Police and Crime Commissioner (a duty transferred to the mayoralty upon its inception), Burnham has taken the Government to task on crime policy, including criticising the Prevent programme (aimed at tackling radicalisation and terrorism).
The mayor’s impact has not just been based on visibility and representation, and he has taken concrete steps to tackle key policy issues in GM. For example, our Metro Mayor Dashboard shows that too many residents of the city region have no formal qualifications, and there is room for improvement in the schools. Here Burnham is already acting, using his convening powers to bring together different actors to help address the large number of children who start education without being ‘school ready’. This coordination across different departments and localities, breaking open of silos and clear leadership is exactly the impact we would have hoped metro mayors to achieve. His work to improve the quality and availability of apprenticeships will also be watched by other mayors and national government. The evaluative and analytical strength of New Economy (the GM combined authority’s research and policy institute) means there will be plenty of data to work with.
Making sure that transport connects every community affordably and efficiently is also vital in ensuing GM is a good place to live and work– and the mayor’s move to introduce half-price bus fares for 16-18 year olds was a positive step towards this. Burnham has an opportunity to take further action to make buses work better for communities and the economy by using the powers afforded to the mayors through the Bus Services Bill.
Burnham took office with a civil service at his disposal which is far better resourced and well-established than would have been found by any of his other fellow mayors. The long lead-in time from the first devolution deal and the interim mayor gave the GMCA and New Economy time to develop the institutions to support the mayor. Burnham’s early nomination and clear manifesto will also have given the organisation a clear steer on how best to support him achieve his ambitions from day one. All of these factors in combination – high profile, big mandate, and a well prepared and resourced office – should give Burnham the political, analytical, and operational weight to make serious running on the policies of his choosing with local and national government.
However, the downside to this strong record of collaborative working is that the mayor is a newcomer in an organisation that already had clear plans in every policy area with timelines into the middle of the century. As such, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there have been some grumblings from local leaders in GM who feel that Burnham has made some promises to the public – and demands of the councils – which overlook the work they are already doing in their area, such as the mayor’s recent call-to-action over tackling homelessness and housing in the city centre. If Burnham wants to significantly alter the planned route of Greater Manchester’s ‘ocean-liner of state’, it will require him to manage relations with the leaders who had set it on that course.
Another area of difference between mayor and council is around development in the city centre. Burnham has consistently suggested that the development strategy of Manchester City Council in the city centre does not deliver enough social value, with too much luxury housing and too little affordable development. He has also raised concerns about an over concentration of investment and growth in the city centre, to the detriment of other areas across the city region. Both points are understandable. However, ultimately GM needs a thriving central business district, supported by adequate office space and accommodation, to continue to grow and attract more high-paying jobs.
Instead, Burnham can take steps to ensure that GM’s growth is as inclusive as possible by using the forthcoming spatial framework for the city region to address the housing, transport and skills issues that can prevent people from accessing GM’s prosperity and jobs. Grasping the nettle on housing – by providing enough land in the most in demand parts of the city (including considering developing green belt land in these areas) – will help to make the city region more affordable and reduce hardships. Burnham should seek to support partnerships such as Matrix Homes across Greater Manchester to lever in local assets, funding and expertise, and recycle that funding into more housebuilding.
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