Andy to Manchester: “I Wanna Be Adored”

If you’ve looked at the news in the latter half of this week, you’ll have seen that Andy Burnham has dived head-first into the race to be Mayor of Greater Manchester (a day earlier than he intended, but that’s another story) as the closing date for Labour nominations, 10 June, approaches. This could be viewed from a couple of perspectives. On the one hand, it could be seen as a strong signal that the former leadership contender does not see much of a political future in the Corbyn regime, despite his status as Shadow Home Secretary. On the other, we could see it as a sign that the Greater Manchester mayoralty will be a serious office, capable of attracting top-tier candidates. The truth is probably a bit of both.

As a former Cabinet minister and two-time party leadership contender, Mr Burnham certainly has the policy and political credentials to give the job a good go. His national standing has only increased in recent years, thanks to his campaigning with the Hillsborough families. That, though, points to his major flaw as a candidate: though a Greater Manchester MP, representing Leigh, many people associate him strongly with Merseyside. In addition to his work on Hillsborough, he’s Aintree-born and a proud Everton fan. While he did well with Greater Manchester constituency parties during his leadership campaign, his selection as the party’s mayoral candidate would be an interesting chapter in the history of inter-city relations in the North West!

For a non-Labour candidate to win this election would be a very real surprise: the party dominates the city-region, and there is no sign of a candidate with the charisma to overcome that. The two other prominent Labour candidates are Tony Lloyd, currently the interim mayor; and Ivan Lewis, the MP for Bury South. Mr Lloyd may still be the favourite: just this week, he announced the support of the union Unite, with its formidable organising capacity. He has his detractors, though, with Sir Richard Leese very critical of his performance as interim mayor; and Lord Smith, leader of Wigan Council and a former candidate for the interim role, appearing to jump swiftly on the Burnham bandwagon. Mr Lewis has perhaps had the lowest-profile campaign, but has apparently raised the most money of any candidate so far. He will likely need something to move his campaign into a higher gear to compete with Messrs Burnham and Lloyd, though.

The men with a plan?

For a property and planning audience, one of the most important powers in the mayoral armoury will be the responsibility for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework: effectively a Local Plan for the city-region. Sadly, politicians seem to find this decidedly un-sexy. The phrase ‘spatial framework’ appears a grand total of zero times on the websites of Tony Lloyd and Ivan Lewis, and you probably wouldn’t get long odds on Andy Burnham’s being any different.

What do they have to say about the issues, though? Let’s look at each in turn (in alphabetical order, for fairness):

  • During his leadership campaign, Mr Burnham boasted of ‘the most ambitious housing policy since the post-war period’, without going into detail about where he might want those houses built. As a constituency MP, he has campaigned against greenfield development, suggesting in 2012 that a requirement for Wigan to provide more housing constituted ‘over-development’, blaming developers for ‘hoarding’ and ‘land-banking’ rather than protecting ‘quality green space’. The words of a constituency MP in Opposition slighting the Government, of course, but they will not be welcome to developers, who might feel the criticism unjustified.
  • Tony Lloyd, despite currently being the mayor of Greater Manchester, has not said much about planning. His website states a commitment to ‘build more decent affordable homes’ through a Greater Manchester Decent Homes Plan, to be drawn up in the future. He is a longstanding supporter of more council or social housing, but little suggests he has a strong interest in planning more generally
  • Ivan Lewis has committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing by demanding the £300m Housing Investment Fund be used for social housing, and not just by private developers; and by forcing ‘developers that own land to either use it or lose it, rather than just waiting for it to increase in value’

Two things seem clear: none of the major candidates see planning as a high priority, at least not in its own right; and they are capable of falling into the trap of treating ‘developers’ as the enemy, hoarding land and preying on beautiful green sites. It is clear that developers need to enter the debate during the election, and provide policy suggestions that can help to frame it. Come May 2017, the new mayor and the private sector will have to develop a constructive relationship – without it, none of the plans for the region will come to very much at all.

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