INTERVIEW | Burnham throws down levelling-up gauntlet
Finalising the GMSF, launching a retrofitting revolution and creating a development corporation to drive Middleton’s regeneration are high on the newly re-elected Greater Manchester Mayor’s to-do list.
In one of his first interviews since securing a second term in office in last Thursday’s mayoral election, Andy Burnham told Place North West that Whitehall needs to collaborate more productively with Greater Manchester if Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to deliver on his election promise to ‘level up’ the regions.
“We are 18 months into this Parliament. I would imagine the Government wants some hard evidence of levelling up [success] by the time the next election comes round,” he said.
Burnham’s plan to create a “London-style transport system” for the city-region, including introducing bus franchising for the first time since deregulation in 1986, can be achieved by 2024, he said, but only with Whitehall support.
The transport strategy is “the most credible plan for levelling up that has yet been presented”, and it is in the Government’s interest to get on board, the mayor added.
“If the Government is as serious about levelling up as it says it is, it will come to the view that they have to work with us and through us.”
One contributing factor to the mayor’s re-election – and to the creation of tensions between Whitehall and Greater Manchester – was his willingness to challenge the Government on the issue of financial support for low-paid workers during the pandemic.
Burnham wanted a £90m cash boost before Greater Manchester was plunged into Tier 3 last October, but the Government was not swayed despite several high-profile national television appearances from Burnham. In many ways, that opportunity to fight Whitehall and stand up for the city region was the perfect campaigning tool.
“In the end, the job is to stand up for the region. Generally, the pandemic has shown the importance of mayors because all of a sudden there is a voice that can represent a large body of people in a way that MPs can’t.
“While I got some support for what I did, others called it grandstanding or playing politics,” Burnham said.
Whatever it was, it seemed to work. The mayor’s ‘place-first not party-first’ approach saw him pick up 67% of the overall mayoral vote last week and victory in each of the 215 voting wards.
Conservative Laura Evans was Burnham’s closest rival in the election but she received 330,000 fewer votes and, while the mayor claims he never took anything for granted, he admitted that Evans’ campaign “lacked Conservative central office credibility”.
“I certainly feel that the campaign run by [Conservative former Trafford Council leader Sean Anstee in 2017] was a more serious campaign than the one we have just seen,” Burnham said.
GMSF/Places For Everyone
When he first took office in 2017, Burnham ripped up the emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Framework and decided to start again from scratch.
Four years and countless delays later, the future of what is now known as the Places for Everyone plan is still up in the air.
Now, Burnham is determined to finally get the document over the line, maintaining that a combined spatial plan agreed between the Greater Manchester boroughs remains the right approach for the region.
“[The GMSF] should be a priority for everyone,” he told Place North West. “Even those who have concerns about it will hopefully recognise that it is better to have a planning framework in place because it protects the Green Belt from speculative development.”
The plan is also crucial in terms of demonstrating to the Government that Greater Manchester is organised and serious about emerging from the pandemic stronger, Burnham said.
“Everyone is turning their minds to recovery and levelling up is the big agenda of the Government. Greater Manchester will be in a much stronger position if we have got a clear plan.”
Having established the Stockport Mayoral Development Corporation in 2019, plans to set up a second, similar organisation in Middleton are underway.
Burnham has already outlined his plans to create a Metrolink spur connecting Middleton with the Bury and Rochdale lines, but says transport infrastructure alone is not enough if developers are going to be enticed into the area.
The proposed new MDC would aim to knit together the transport strategy with plans for future development in and around the town.
“I am very clear that levelling up needs to take a place-based view so if I am going to be extending the tram network I need to be conscious about looking at the wider regeneration opportunities and capturing the benefits of the transport improvement,” Burnham said.
Next week, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s newly established retrofitting taskforce will meet for the first time, Burnham revealed to Place North West.
The taskforce, made up of colleges, social landlords and energy providers, aims to bring together public sector organisations to “pump-prime” the retrofitting pipeline so the private sector can get involved later down the line, the mayor explained.
Up to 60,000 buildings will need to be retrofitted in Greater Manchester every year if the city region is to achieve its target of becoming net-zero carbon by 2038, according to a report to Manchester City Council in 2019.
“The hope would be that in five or 10 years’ time retrofitting will be a well-oiled industry within the private sector,” Burnham said, adding that the industry could provide an opportunity to reposition the narrative around the climate crisis.
“If you address the housing crisis and the jobs crisis you can also address the climate crisis. Rather than viewing the climate crisis as a burden to business, we have to embrace it as the root to good jobs and homes.”
Last week’s election saw all of England’s incumbent directly elected mayors return for a second term in office, something Burnham views as a victory for devolution.
“There is an appetite for English devolution that is clearly coming through in the results. It is here to stay and is firmly on the political map of the country.”
During the tense back-and-forth between Greater Manchester and Whitehall last October, it seemed as if the country was more divided than ever, and Burnham admits to feeling as if the Government was pulling back from devolution “because they didn’t like people speaking back to them”.
However, if Johnson is to deliver on his election promise to level up the regions, he needs mayors to lead the charge locally, and in turn, they need his backing.
Burnham admits strengthening the relationship between the Government and Greater Manchester is going to be crucial if he is to make a success of his second term – which he thinks will be more challenging than his first – and deliver on his own campaign commitments.
But whether the rift between the mayor and the Government can be forgotten in the name of progress remains to be seen.
“I have got a lot of text messages on my phone [sent since the election win] that I haven’t looked at so maybe there is one lurking in there from a B Johnson, you never know.”