When the change the country so desperately needs finally comes, it might arrive not with great fanfare in a King’s Speech, but on the back of a Manchester bus. For, according to Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham, the introduction of the Bee Network – Greater Manchester’s new integrated transport system – is a sign of better things ahead, not just for the region’s commuters but for people right across the country. Burnham says the new network, due to launch just after we speak for this interview, shows just what devolving power out of Westminster can do.
“English devolution in the city regions is coming of age,” he explains. “When buses here go back under public control, I think it will send a message to all parts of England that devolution is changing the governance of the country. It’s changing the way big important services are run. And actually it’s the first time that a big decision of that kind has been made outside of Whitehall.”
Devolution, Burnham argues, offers a fresh vision for a country battered by austerity, the cost of living crisis and a crumbling public realm. “Devolution is the gateway to more hope. Because if people feel there’s something they can do, even though times are tough, and that there’s a greater sense of possibility or agency at the local level, that actually helps build hope,” he says. “So this move that Greater Manchester is making to take control of buses, I think that should be like a bit of light in the gloom: ‘well hang on a minute, why can’t we retake control of rail? Why can’t we retake control of other essential services? Why can’t we have more locally owned energy of the kind that Labour signalled at the conference last year?’”
Burnham famously made the move into regional government in 2017 after 16 years as a Labour MP, including a stint as health secretary. His national profile means he’s always asked (including by me) whether he will return to national politics. But doesn’t the question itself underline one of the problems with devolved government in that it is consistently undervalued in comparison with Westminster?
“When you’re working from the bottom up, you look at issues like homelessness differently. I always say you see names, not numbers”
“It’s a mentality that we all share to some degree, which we’ve all grown up with, which is that Westminster is the only show in town,” Burnham admits. “I honestly think it’s a really outdated mentality. Because the 21st century is going to be more about change driven by cities and city regions – bottom-up change. The kind of thinking that says everything has to be controlled and legislated for I don’t think ever particularly worked but it really won’t work in the 21st century. England, and I would say the rest of the UK, is crying out for deeper devolution.”
For himself, Burnham says he will definitely stand for a third term as mayor – and in doing so help Westminster to reform itself.
“I think this phase of my political journey is best served in establishing a new tier of governance for England, and properly establishing it rather than doing half a job,” he says. “I have nothing against Westminster but I think increasingly Westminster needs to reform itself by giving more power to places like Greater Manchester. So we create the opportunity for the reform of Westminster.”
Burnham’s ‘bottom-up’ perspective includes a rejection of national one-size-fits-all policies in favour of a more personalised approach.
Take housing, for example, where Greater Manchester has created the ‘bed every night’ scheme to tackle rough sleeping and has, along with Liverpool and the West Midlands, adopted a ‘housing first’ approach, which focuses on providing a stable home for vulnerable individuals before addressing other support needs.
“Homelessness is an issue that is experienced very differently when you’re sitting where I am, as opposed to sitting in Westminster or Whitehall,” Burnham says. “It’s devastating for anybody to spend even one night out on the streets because that does catastrophic damage to physical and mental health – it’s got to be viewed as a health emergency. I think when you’re working from the bottom up, you look at issues like that differently. I always say you see names, not numbers.”
He adds: “With housing first, if you set people up to succeed and you give them the time and space to recover, they will recover. If you leave people trapped in the tyranny of the benefit rules and the housing allocation rules, the way that those rules conflict with people’s recovery path means that you end up constantly paying for crisis and failure.”
Of course, a preventative approach is all well and good. But too often, the rhetoric around levelling up or more local decision-making is undermined by a lack of resources. And the crisis in funding for local authorities – which are in Burnham’s words the ‘bedrock’ of devolution – makes change at a local and regional level much more difficult.
“I’ve been in national government, and I’ve now been in local government. What I would say is, in my experience, national government wastes far more money than local government. Local government takes a long-term place-based approach. National government deals in short-term initiatives, gimmicks. Often things don’t last the term – when a minister goes on the merry-go-round, then the whole thing changes and something else comes in.”
Burnham believes the attitude towards local government needs to change, with an end to the ‘supreme arrogance’ coming out of London – a phrase which seems particularly apt in light of the row over the Manchester leg of HS2.
“It’s interesting to sit from my perspective and see actually how wasteful national government is [with] people’s time and their morale. Making us bid all the time – it’s debilitating,” he says. “We’ve got to the point now where councils have been bidding in to build things like public toilets through the levelling up fund. Surely councils should have a level of funding in their base budget to provide essential facilities in their local areas. But no, they’ve become the sort of thing that you’ve got to bid for.”
“That distrust of local government began in the 1980s and I think has continued pretty much ever since,” he adds. “We did some things when we were in government to reverse it, but not enough I would say. I think you’ve got to start thinking of local councils in a different way. They can’t carry on as they as they are.”
On a more positive note, Burnham points to the contribution of all of the city region mayors in shifting the national debate. “I think we’ve changed the conversation with regard to regional fairness, and in time, it will benefit people everywhere for the regions to be heard more powerfully in Whitehall and in the national media,” he says. “There is just a huge disparity between life in some parts of the country compared to others. That sense of two countries and the unfairness that comes from that is a big problem for Britain. The cohesion of the country is weakened by that sense that things are unequal. I think mayors have started to correct that.”
“I fell out of love with the Westminster obsession with the game and the point scoring, and who’s up and who’s down”
Burnham has made transport a priority because, he stresses, it is crucial not only for growth and investment but also for the quality of people’s everyday lives. Should he be elected for a third term, he says he will focus on skills and the ‘poor relation’ of our current education system – technical education.
“We’ve had a situation for decades where technical education has been allowed to be a distinctly second-class option and where young people have been left without really knowing what their options are. They’re just left to find their own way if they’re not on that university route. And that is a generator of inequality.”
“I think what we’re beginning to do is roll back the 1980s and the deregulation and the fragmentation that that [era] brought – the idea that everything needs to be broken up. I think what we’re doing is glueing it all back together again. So we’ve glued the transport system back together again. And then the next one is to start to look at doing the same for skills and technical education. Getting people working as part of networks and systems as opposed to this idea that everyone’s got to compete to the nth degree. It’s not worked, it really hasn’t worked.”
With a general election on the horizon, Burnham is hopeful that Labour in power will give city mayors more tools to make change in their areas. But is he worried about the party increasingly boxing itself in on future spending? As a veteran of the last Labour government, he says not. “It’s good discipline – I remember [the same] discipline pre-97. I think only making a commitment when you know you can fund it is not a bad principle.”
What he would like to see from Labour, however, is a commitment to spending to save when it can. “You do need to indicate your priorities as far as resources allow,” he says. “You could take an issue like the two-child [benefit] rule. When you sit where I am, you can actually see the extra cost that that creates. The two-child rule, when you combine it with the benefit cap and the freeze on local housing allowance, is forcing thousands of families into temporary accommodation. There’s been a massive rise in family homelessness across the country. So actually, those policies, if you look at it in the round, they don’t actually save money.”
The Burnham approach, then, would involve a greater focus on prevention, as well as more devolution to allow money to be spent more effectively. The Department for Work and Pensions budget is one example, he believes, where devolving spending could lead to much better returns. If the next Labour government wants to be a reforming government, it should be looking at such a place-based approach. “If you’re talking about an era of constrained resources and if you are talking about the need to reform public services, as I’m hearing shadow ministers say, it shouldn’t be going back to the reform of the 2000s, which was seen as a byword for outsourcing and privatisation. It should be to go in the opposite direction, to bring things back in-house, but then integrate them to create a placebased approach to public services.”
The localised approach which Burnham advocates extends beyond services. His decision to U-turn on a vehicle charging zone for Greater Manchester because of the cost of living crisis has been controversial: some have argued that he was proved right by the unpopularity of London mayor Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ scheme and its role in the Uxbridge by-election defeat. Others have seen the decision as an abdication of the fight for clean air. But Burnham suggests it was actually a sign of his placebased philosophy. “I’m ambitious and radical on public transport,” he says. “I actually think that is our route to clean air – and I personally believe that’s a better route for us. We’re different from London – the London context is very different from ours.”
So is Burnham a pragmatist or a radical? It depends, he says – and the joy of being Greater Manchester mayor means he can be both.
“I’m actually in the end interested in progress and change,” he says. “I actually fell out of love with the Westminster obsession with the game and the point scoring and who’s up and who’s down. I really in the end didn’t feel I could achieve what I wanted to achieve through politics by living in that world. I also felt increasingly that Westminster makes a fraud out of good people. Because you’ve got to toe the party line, you’ve got to follow the whip. It can have an effect on people where you end up looking like something you’re actually not.
“This job allows me to be ambitious, radical, pragmatic – and gradual, which I need to be, because I can’t change everything overnight.”