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On the Back-Burnham

Assessing the Mayor's merits four years on, we look at homelessness, air quality and a run as 'King of the North'


In 2017, Andy Burnham won a landslide victory in the Greater Manchester Mayoral contest, taking nearly two-thirds of the total vote, winning all ten Boroughs and securing all but six of the over one-hundred council wards across the region. Although a Labour success was all but guaranteed, Burnham treated the contest seriously and presented a plan for Manchester which he would seek to pursue upon election. With the ongoing pandemic, the upcoming election in May (in which Burnham shall run for re-election) was originally scheduled for May last year – and so with an unexpected extra twelve months under his belt, we ask: what has Andy Burnham brought to Greater Manchester?

Promised Made, Promises Kept

Air Pollution is an issue that has numerous debilitating effects on populations who live in urban spaces, and the Greater Manchester conurbation is no exception. One report from December 2018 outlined that 152 stretches of roadway across GM were responsible for levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) above the legal level set by the National Government. NO2 is linked to an estimated 1,200 deaths per year in the region and as such tackling this is a serious matter for the Mayor. Furthermore, studies by The University of Manchester have found that “maintaining lower air pollution levels by 20% could improve the development of a child’s working memory by 6.1%, the equivalent of four weeks extra learning time per year”. So, it is not just a question of protecting people’s health, but also improving children’s wellbeing and growth.

One key element of the solution rests in the new Clean Air Zones (CAZ), where the ambition is to reduce emissions and change behaviours by offering incentives to individuals and business to switch to less polluting vehicles, for example. Air Quality News explained: “HGVs, LGVs, buses and taxis would be charged to enter the CAZ if they don’t meet nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions standards. Private cars would not be charged.” Also, Mayor Burnham has stressed that Westminster had effectively dumped the responsibility for this mammoth task onto his desk, and that he will be lobbying the Government aggressively to release a further £116 Million in order to take the pressure off those who wish to do the right thing and make the adjustment to cleaner vehicles but cannot afford the direct financial hit.

Our plan is ambitious but it needs a multi-million-pound financial support package to help local businesses and requires the government to not duck from its responsibilities… supporting companies across the region to move towards a more sustainable future.

Andy Burnham

Homelessness is another tragic and ever-present issue regularly seen around the region and particularly in the City Centre. With his funding and assistance, the A Bed Every Night group has been able to cut rough sleeping down in recent years and allowed people safe accommodation and support to avoid the dangers homelessness brings. According to their website, over 3,000 people have been helped by them since they formed; over 1,000 moved onto permanent accommodation; and, as of 6 January 2021, 470 others who would have been alone on the streets were helped indoors that night. Mayor Burnham, simply by championing this issue and not allowing it to escape the public discourse, has consistently brought in notable celebrities and groups to further highlight and donate into action funds to finally end the problem. Even with the Covid pandemic pushing more people into housing insecurity and even onto the streets he has emphasised the need to continue the fight, stating: “Covid is an interruption to the trajectory but it does not mean we are stepping down.”

According to the latest statistics, house building is reaching record levels over the past two years, with 2019 and 2020 both showing dramatic increases in the number of units built. Deloitte’s figures say that 4,914 units were built in 2020 – and over 12,000 were already underway in sites approved across 46 locations. A great deal of these new constructions can be seen in the city centre primarily, as the skyline just over the past four years has altered dramatically compared to its previous appearance. There is a story behind the mayor’s choices to continue focusing building in already dense urban areas (albeit redeveloping disused or underdeveloped brownfield land). Essentially, due to objections raised from the suburban communities on the fringes of Greater Manchester, the Spatial Framework (GMSF) housing plans have gone back to the drawing board. Explaining the effect of such decisions, Inside Housing reported that the result would mean “87% of housing development over the next 20 years will happen within urban areas,” suggesting a concentration of investment in already wealthier centres shall leave those suburban areas behind due to their unwillingness to cooperate with the mayor.

Place North West has written on this issue, suggesting that concerns brought by Conservatives in Stockport have meant that land in the borough has been taken out of consideration to any plans put forward by the mayor’s office. Mr Burnham, in an open letter, said: “As a result, the GMSF allows Stockport to cut the number of planned homes by over 5,000 – 25% less than its Government target. Conversely, if Stockport was to opt out of the GMSF, it would have to find land for all these 5,000 homes […] opting out also means Stockport loses its ability to access significant brownfield funding, meaning the vast majority of these homes would most likely have to be built on Green Belt and our open green spaces anyway.”

The Mayor has shown, however, by his persistence to continue house building, that increasing the housing stock is a key part of Greater Manchester’s future. The data available thus far shows as of 2019 that the borough of Manchester, the one seeing the sharpest increase in building, now has more flats than all other housing categories in the borough of Bury – around 80,000 in total. Perhaps the most vindicating number showing the speed with which housing is being build is that since the mayor took office, the number of ‘housing starts’ (i.e. building actually underway) has increased year-on-year, reversing an eight-year slump, and now achieving levels last seen during the housing boom of the early 2000s. The previous record high was in 2008 when over 8,500 new builds were constructed, and data shows that 2018/19 was reaching this level and is projected to smash this figure over the next few years.

Room for Improvement

One large item on the Mayor’s agenda was finally submitting a promised “Radical Re-write” of the GMSF. In short, this plan would have collated the proposals, projects and developments across the region and allowed the Mayor’s office to oversee a more cohesive expansion of building works, from housing to parks to commercial. Getting through a successful Spatial Framework would have meant that much needed big-ticket items could be fast-tracked as they have the approval of the Mayor and the ten boroughs – meaning a win for him, as he could point to it as evidence of his drive to grow the area’s economy, public services, and living spaces.

However, on 3 December 2020, Stockport Council alone vetoed the plans, meaning that until a new compromise can be made, the plan has been shelved. Nonetheless, the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) shortly thereafter put forward a proposal which would effectively sign up to a new cooperative agreement with the nine boroughs who did approve of the GMSF. According to a document drawn up by their Executive Board, their rationale for proceeding includes some of the following elements: align the delivery of development with infrastructure proposals; provide a framework to manage growth in a sustainable and inclusive way; avoid unplanned development and development by appeal; and, most crucially, underpin Greater Manchester’s plan for recovery from COVID-19.

Realistically, this will mean the Mayor’s plans will move forward in some areas – allowing for a more bold approach in his (likely) second term. Ultimately, it was the opposition parties, the Lib Dems and Conservatives, who stopped the adoption of the GMSF over the potential that “hundreds” of houses are to be built on Green Belt land, primarily near High Lane. Nevertheless, Stockport Council is historically one which has never had a majority administration and likely never would, and so it is unlikely it could ever agree on a GMSF without huge concessions to minority parties.

Burnham vs Johnson

Burnham won praise in late October 2020 when, during the multi-‘Tier’-system part of the pandemic, the Westminster Government was proposing forcing certain areas into lockdowns without adequate funding. For example, originally Liverpool had been told to lockdown and was not given a package of economic support to businesses, the self-employed, or even regular wage-earning individuals. Seeing this, Burnham made a public appeal to the Prime Minister to let the lockdown occur but on more favourable terms. The question of how much money Greater Manchester was entitled to as a result of being forced to close down its economy led to a weeklong media battle between Burnham and Johnson.

This incident was down to what a commentator noted was “a consensus in the north that central government simply doesn’t understand what goes on […] it treats the region heavy-handedly, and is intent simply on imposing its will without bothering meaningfully to consult, let alone negotiate.” Ultimately, a YouGov poll published at the time showed this stark divide in opinion, with Burnham seemingly attracting support across the North West. In the North, he was seen as acting in the interests of Manchester by 46% to 30%; whereas in the South, he was seen as playing party politics, 41% to 31%.

Although the result of the negotiations was the implementation of a lockdown without a more generous aid package, the political boost Burnham received from Greater Manchester proved to be valuable. With his electorate appearing to be targeted, he stood up for it and allowed himself to be seen as taking on a distant ‘enemy’ – thereby justifying the need for local Government and showcasing the role he would take in bargaining for the region’s best interests against those who don’t “understand” it.

Learn more

The Mayoral Election takes place on 6 May, along with the local elections. You can register to vote here:

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