Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has called for UK metro mayors to have greater powers over issues such as skills, transport, housing and more so they can take regions forward further and faster.  

On Tuesday 5 July 2022, Andy spoke at the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce in London alongside Andy Street the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Haldane, the Chief Executive of the RSA, and Professor Alison Woolf who sits on the government’s Levelling Up Advisory Council. The talk focused on the future of devolution in the UK.

Andy delivered the following speech to explain why he is calling for greater powers and autonomy for the UK’s metro mayors:

"In these polarised times, there are precious few policies which both command strong majority support amongst the public and, as Andy (Street) and I are demonstrating tonight, around which a strong cross-party consensus has the potential to form.

"For those simple reasons, the devolution of power out of Westminster and into the English regions should be a high national priority right now.

"When you add to that the fact that it can help achieve core national goals – such as economic growth in the regions, accelerating the pace of progress towards the 2050 net zero target and create a more positive, functional and unifying way of doing politics – the case for devolving more, and for going further, faster, becomes compelling.

"This evening I want to share with you the shape of, and logic behind, Greater Manchester’s proposals in the forthcoming Trailblazer negotiation with the Government, which I know align closely with those of the West Midlands. In so doing, we want to build a broad national consensus behind them and, if we can then agree them with the Government, find some much-needed forward momentum for the country.

"We are over five years in to the start of English devolution proper and already there is clear evidence of the benefits it is bringing.

"We are speeding up the regeneration and re-industrialisation of parts of the country that were most affected by the closures of the 1970s and 1980s. For proof of that, you only have to look at the skyline of city centre Manchester which has changed dramatically in the last five years, reflecting the fact that we are the fastest growing digital and tech hub in Europe.

"After decades of decline, we are speeding up the reform and improvement of public transport outside of London. By the end of 2024, Greater Manchester will have integrated buses, trams and bike hire in a tap-in, tap-out London-style public transport system – which will provide the foundation for a more productive economy.

"And we are showing that, by breaking down the Whitehall silos and joining the dots between public services, we can mount a better response to our social challenges, improve delivery and spend public money more effectively and efficiently.

"For evidence of this, let me quote to you the early findings of a review funded by the Health Foundation into health devolution in Greater Manchester, which is still subject to peer review and awaiting publication. It concluded: 'GM had better population health than expected following devolution. The benefits of devolution were apparent in the most deprived and poorer health areas, suggesting a narrowing of inequality.'

"This improvement was primarily attributed to the high level of alignment across all public services; perhaps most evident in our response to the rough sleeping crisis, where we have achieved a 68% reduction in the number of rough sleepers – significantly higher than the national average.

"And our work to align the Work Programme with the Adult Education Budget has achieved more success in getting people back to work.

"We were pleased when the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper accepted the case we have been making: that Levelling Up requires further devolution. But we do need to see that commitment turned quickly into tangible action.

"That’s because I believe it is more than just a good thing to do; it is a necessity. Less centralised countries are more ready to rise to 21st century challenges than we are. I foresee a risk to UK plc if we don’t devolve enough, fast enough.

"This is certainly true of the race to net zero.

"It can only be won from the bottom up, not top down, and, to have any hope of hitting 2050, we need to quicken the pace of change now - particularly in places like cities which will be the early adopters, where the new technologies will be proven and the skills base built.

"Take the retrofitting challenge: we will only be to retrofit homes at the scale and pace needed if local areas are able to create strong, agile networks involving housing, construction, energy, finance and skills partners.

"Retrofitting isn’t just part of the answer to the climate challenge, it is also important in a cost of living crisis. Improving peoples’ homes to be energy efficient and reducing bills.

"This brings me to the biggest missing piece in the devolution jigsaw and single most important ask of this Trailblazer process: skills and technical education."

Skills

"When I meet with potential investors looking to set up in our city region, the thing they most want reassurance about is whether they will have access to the talented and skilled people they need. They want to know about our level of control over the skills system and what level of influence we can offer them.

"We can give them some answers – but the truth is they are not as strong as they need to be. And that leaves Britain at risk of losing out on potential inward investment. 

"We are working hard to shape our system working with our FE and HE providers – and we have a strong team at the GMCA – but at the moment we’re dealing too much in work-arounds and retrofits, such as our match-making service for the Apprenticeship Levy.

"With more control over post-16 technical education, we could build a more responsive local skills system which would be a significant boost to investment and growth.

"As a general rule in this negotiation, I will avoid taking the “we want it because we want it” approach. Instead, we will base our asks for more responsibility on the basis that we will deliver more back for our public and UK plc from the same investment.

"Technical education is an area that Whitehall has never done well under any government. It has never been correctly prioritised in the national political debate and, as the 21st century brings ever more diversified and specific demands for skills, we will be at risk if we don’t change now.

"We are facing a colossal retraining challenge when it comes to moving older workers from traditional vehicle mechanic and construction skills to the green economy. But, as things stand, we may not move fast enough.

"However, we have the first signs of a better, more targeted and localised skills service starting to emerge. Ever since we were handed control of the Adult Education Budget, we have been able to focus this element of public skills spending on priority sectors and employer needs, consolidating the number and quality of providers and stripping out waste and inefficiency.

"The logic the government applied in devolving the AEB was that skills provision is better determined at a local level where it can be aligned with the local labour market. That judgement has been proven right and now is the time to apply the same logic to other parts of the skills system. 

"We will be proposing:

  • Local control of the post-19 skills system and work-based learning, ensuring it has strong links to the needs of our local labour market
  • a partnership with DWP so we can bring together skills and employment support – building on the track record of our Working Well programme and having more influence about how JobCentres operate in GM
  • a partnership with DfE on post-16 provision, co-commissioning courses like T-Levels, making sure they deliver on both national priorities and the needs of our local employers

"All this would allow us to make a major step forward by creating a coherent Greater Manchester Technical Education Service with involvement from partners in FE, HE and industry, moving from a fragmented landscape of loosely connected initiatives and institutions to a system geared towards our specific needs and clear pathways for our residents into better futures."

Transport

"Another potential barrier to growth in Greater Manchester if we don’t fix it is transport and more specifically a rail industry which is not keeping pace with the change in our city-region.

"This week the Census told us that Salford is the most rapidly growing city in the North – with the number of residents growing by more than 15 per cent in the last decade.

"Manchester was not far behind with growth of nearly 10 per cent.

"But just 20 per cent of Greater Manchester residents can reach the centre within 30 minutes on public transport.

"We have a plan for a London-style transport system but it will only be as comprehensive as it needs to be if rail gets with the programme.

"At present, it is in danger of being left on the platform.

"Our city-centre rail stations are becoming very visible symbols of the problem. They are becoming outliers in a city of modern buildings and skyscrapers, relics of a different era.

"So we’ll be asking the Government to establish a new partnership between Greater Manchester, Network Rail and the wider rail industry to take control of our stations and make them worthy of our growing city region by unlocking investment opportunities, supporting housing growth and our wider place-making agenda.

"In the second half of this decade, we want our stations to be part of our Bee Network, bearing the same branding as our buses and trams.

"This partnership will also develop a new pipeline of schemes to unlock capacity on the rail network and counter the poor performance that has bedevilled Manchester’s railways for years, integrating commuter rail with Metrolink through tram-train technology.

"Over time, we’ll be asking the Government and the new Great British Railways to give us more control over commuter rail and to work with us towards fully integrated ticketing: that London-style system, giving easy and affordable access to the whole public transport system through a daily cap on what people can spend.

"Going forward, building a revenue stream to support a reformed system is part of what we will need to do. So we are open to discussing fiscal devolution as part of the Trailblazer and specifically modest revenue-raising measures which can support that goal."

Housing

"The only way that true levelling up can happen is when skills and transport are linked to housing and generation in a coherent place-based vision.

"That is why the third priority ask will be for more powers over housing.

"We are the fastest-growing city-region outside of London over the last decade and that fact presents another risk to our success if not adequately addressed: access to decent, affordable housing.

"The GMCA has recently approved an initial implementation plan for the delivery of 30,000 net zero carbon social rented homes by 2038, working with partners in and beyond Greater Manchester to trial new approaches.

"And we are looking to extend the success of our Housing Investment Fund through new flexibilities, and build on our Strategic Partnership with Homes England.

"But, alongside new homes, we need to get better at improving the ones we already have.

"Across the country, millions of people are in receipt of housing-related benefits which ultimately go to private landlords who fail, or refuse, to keep their properties up to a Decent Standard.

"In Greater Manchester, it is estimated that 40-50% of homes in the PRS are not at the Decent Standard.

"We were therefore pleased to see the Government committing extending to the Decent Homes Standard to the private rented sector and we believe we can help drive the change that they, and we, want to see.

"We’ll be proposing a ‘Housing Quality Pathfinder’ – a joint partnership to test new ways of tackle poor quality homes without harming vulnerable tenants.

"Working alongside the Government’s plan to introduce the PRS Property Portal, we are building our own GM Good Landlord Charter to drive up standards in the private rented sector by boosting our ability to enforce against bad landlords. We will want to use the Pathfinder to examine ways in which we can link housing-related benefits to the Decent Standard, calling time on absent unscrupulous landlords who take from our communities but give little back."

Accountability

"Before I finish, I want to address an issue which, for some, is a block on their support for devolution.

"It has to be the case that with greater power comes greater accountability.

"I know some in Westminster think Mayors and CAs are not accountable enough. But I can say, having been a Minister and a Mayor, I feel far more accountable in this job than any role in Westminster – with a larger electorate than any MP able to raise concerns with me directly, particularly over social media.

"In fact, I sometimes feel I am also being held to account for decisions not of my making – in local and national government.

"But I can see that Government are reluctant to devolve if that means they are still blamed for poor outcomes.

"Clearer and stronger accountability mechanisms are therefore in the interests of both sides.

"Both myself and the ten GM Council Leaders are ready for real accountability – but that requires giving us real responsibility too. Whitehall has to learn to let go.

"I spent five years in Whitehall as a Minister and have now done five years in Town Hall as a Mayor and I can say from my own experience that it is Whitehall that wastes the most, taking decisions too far away from the ground on short-term initiatives that are designed to change headlines but much else.

"The hoops that Whitehall makes town halls jump through to access funding lack self-awareness and more would get done in this country if we called time on the tyranny of the bidding culture and national government learned to trust local government a little more.

"But, in return, we should accept the same level of scrutiny that minsters and senior officials in a Government Department experience.

"So we will say, as long as we are properly responsible, our officials are ready to be subject to the scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee, and I am ready to be subject to the scrutiny of a Select Committee.

"Accountability comes from greater transparency too.

"With a Single Block Grant agreed for a whole Spending Review period, covering a set of clear functions and delivering a set of outcomes agreed between Greater Manchester and Government, we can clarify and simplify English devolution.

"Everyone will be clear about who is taking which decisions, what funding has been provided, and what we have agreed to deliver in return. If this can be achieved, it would reflect a growing maturity in the arrangements for English devolution and get the national/local relationship into a better place."

Conclusion

"So, in conclusion, we are not asking for devolution for devolution’s sake.

"Our case for change is that, with more agency, we can be more than we are and we can return more for UK plc.

"And a politics based on the unifying force of place, rather than the divisions of party, is what this country needs now more than ever if we are to unlock positive energy in all places and spread a sense of new possibility throughout this land."


Article Published: 06/07/2022 11:12 AM