With all focus drawn to the London mayoral election and the issues that the City faces under the leadership of Sadiq Khan, Manchester’s similarly important choice faced in 2017 has been somewhat eclipsed. Manchester requires just as good, if not a better leader, if it is to cope with the same pressures as the capital with a significantly tighter purse and less media attention.
Under the “Devo Manc” devolved powers introduced by George Osborne, Manchester has been promised renewal and greater autonomy over its own finances. Yet it faces enormous challenges including cuts in public sector funding, increased demands on healthcare, poverty and homelessness, crime and housing, as well as transportation. Manchester’s future mayor will have to be a person of action who can tackle these issues relentlessly.
So who are the potential candidates? Tony Lloyd, currently interim Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester, has already stated his intention to stand for the post as the Labour Party candidate. In his race he may be joined by Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham, who recently stated that he would be considering the post, and has enjoyed recent success in his campaign for a second Hillsborough inquiry. Sir Richard Leese, the current Labour leader of Manchester City Council, is another potential candidate. It is either ironic or excellently planned that the role Osborne created is to be held by a Labour figure, barring any seismic political event. Of course, with greater responsibility for its own budgets, it will be easy for the incumbent government to offload blame onto Manchester’s decidedly Labour council in the event of any future shortcomings.
“Devo Manc” has already been termed “the Northern Poorhouse” by critics who have argued that the measures were not voted for in a referendum, and are a thinly disguised attempt by the government to impose cuts on Manchester by offering a flat £6bn of devolved NHS budgets. People are sceptical of a deal brokered in secret between the Manchester City Council, headed by Sir Leese, and Osborne, carried out behind closed doors with no public consultation. As a matter of fact, Manchester voted against having an elected Mayor in 2012, and polls found that locals were divided on the issue.
Mancunians such as myself remain sceptical of devolved power, particularly when there is a risk of it becoming firmly centralised in Manchester Town Hall under the reign of the already present council. I consequently believe that, of the current prospective candidates, Andy Burnham is the most hopeful, as an outsider to the infrastructure of the city council – able, as a result, to challenge its prevailing structures and ideas. Though Manchester voted against having a mayor, it is important that the mayoral vacancy is turned from a bureaucratic post to a role of local power, challenging government policy while tackling the immense challenges our city faces.
Andy fits the bill, not only for his proven success on fighting issues such as the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust scandal and the Hillsborough inquiry, but for his knowledge and experience of the NHS and of northern politics as a whole. Greater Manchester’s 12 CCGs and nine Acute Trusts face huge challenges, with an estimated £114m deficit, understaffed units, and failures caused in part by the Health and Social Care Act of 2012. One example of this is the Arriva patient transport contract of £66.8m, which was cancelled after the bus firm misclaimed £1.5m of good performance fees. Dealing with the challenges the NHS faces is Burnham’s bread and butter. His own constituency, Leigh, has faced similar issues around healthcare inequality for his 15 years in office, and he has worked as both Secretary and Shadow Secretary for Health.
As opposed to the Labour leadership contest – a popularity contest – the mayoral vacancy brings an opportunity for a man like Andy to shine. It is a public sector role which requires a person of action, rather than a figurehead – someone who can get out and tackle the issues affecting the city. The effect of Conservative policies are plain to see within Manchester’s city centre, with spiralling numbers of homeless people populating the city, increasing unemployment, and deprived areas in places like Rochdale, Salford and Oldham being squeezed ever tighter. Burnham cares about these issues deeply, and has campaigned on them throughout his time in the Labour Party. What he lacks in image, he makes up for in grit resolve and his role as a “people’s champion.”
The number of rough sleepers in Manchester increased by at least 50% from 2014 to 2015. A large homeless camp is currently set-up outside the Macdonald Hotel, Manchester.
As Andy himself said, it is “very early days” to be considering who will gain the title of Mayor of Greater Manchester. What is clear, however, is that the task of regenerating the area will not be an easy one. It will be an extremely difficult role, plagued by budget cuts, requiring strong representation on key issues in the aim of getting a fairer deal. George Osborne’s supposed plan to create a northern powerhouse will face many hurdles along the way, not least of which being his party’s own national policies. Yet the Tory Chancellor is correct in stressing the importance of the north in empowering Britain’s economy on the world stage. Whether that is the aim of the current devolution of powers, or whether there is something more sinister at work, is yet to be seen. While the battle for London has ended, the battle for Manchester has just begun.