Bustling. Crowded. Hectic. Visitors to Manchester’s Piccadilly train station can’t help but notice that it hums with activity all day, every day – a surefire sign that this is a city, and a region, brimming with energy and potential.
It’s also a city region that this year underwent some sweeping changes to its governance. In May, along with five other areas in England, it chose its first directly elected mayor to represent the people of all 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester.
This was a substantial change – and not without its controversy – but one that Andy Burnham, former cabinet minister and senior parliamentarian, instinctively gravitated towards. His decision to stand for election – giving up his seat in Westminster in the process – paid immediate dividends: he won a landslide victory with 63% of the vote. Any regrets? Not at all – quite the opposite, in fact.
“There’s not one minute of one day since I came into power when I have wished I was back in Westminster,” he says, smiling. “I’d come to feel that the Westminster system was too remote, not capable of responding to people’s concerns, and increasingly dysfunctional. So for me, coming into this role it feels quite invigorating because you’re in a position where you feel you can do something and make a direct difference.”
Manchester on the move
The city of Manchester and its surrounding region may be rightly famous for its football teams, but it has much to offer beyond the sporting realm. The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, it continues to operate as an economic powerhouse, one underpinned by strong infrastructure, an array of leading universities, and much else besides.
For Burnham, a native of the UK’s North West, the myriad attractions of the role were obvious – but he still had to overcome some initial scepticism among voters.
“Going through the election campaign, you would hear things like ‘the role can’t do anything, there’s no point, it is just going to be another level of bureaucracy’, but that narrative has very much died away,” he reflects. “Now I’m more likely to get people asking me why I haven’t done something on homelessness or other key issues. I think this is a good thing, not a bad thing, because it means that the public has accepted the legitimacy of a city region mayor and they are impatient to see more change delivered through that route.”
He is also keen to stress that he welcomes the spotlight and pressure that mayoral office brings – even when, as other mayors attest, it is a role that offers no hiding place. “I don’t mind that accountability,” he says. “I’ve lived with that throughout my political life. I learned that as a constituency MP, because even if you’re not in control of something like a broken traffic light, people will still blame you for it. So I like that level of accountability – I think it is a good thing, and obviously felt the same when I was a government minister.”
As Greater Manchester’s mayor, Burnham has an eclectic range of responsibilities. He chairs its Combined Authority, leading on issues such as the economy and transport, as well as setting budgets and acting as its primary ambassador. It’s somewhat ironic, though, that the role came about as a result of a reform from the Conservative government, rather than the Labour administration of which Burnham was a senior member. Does he believe, in retrospect, that this was an opportunity missed by his party?
“Yes, I think it was definitely a missed opportunity in hindsight,” he replies. “Where devolution was delivered by Labour 20 years ago – London, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – I would say it has worked for those places. It has built a more vibrant political culture. Devolution was meant to come to England, starting in the North East, and then the North West would come afterwards. I was actually involved in a body called ‘Yes for the North West’, but we never got the chance to go public with our campaign after voters in the North East rejected it. So, we had an instinct to do something, but it was probably the wrong proposal as regions lack the identification of cities, and it also looked like a very bureaucratic extra layer of government.”
Hitting the ground running
Burnham wasted little time in settling into his new role. Partly this was due to his limited term of only three years – rather than the usual four, due to a delay in the devolution process – but it was also due to events. A couple of weeks after starting work, he was leading Manchester’s response to the terror attack at an Ariana Grande concert in the city.
Perhaps the issue he is most closely identified with, however, is that of homelessness – something all too familiar to many cities. Manchester is no exception, but Burnham is nonetheless aiming to end rough sleeping there by 2020. “This is the thing I said I would do something about,” he says firmly. “There’s a risk in that benefits decisions at a national level could have an impact, and this is out of my hands, but this is the thing I have put myself up to be judged by.”
Burnham, who is donating 15 percent of his salary to a new homelessness fund, goes on to explain that it’s an issue that has always resonated particularly strongly. “It goes to the heart of what kind of place we are, what kind of values we’ve got,” he says. “It’s the most obvious sign of a society that is not working, and devolution has landed at a moment when this issue has risen to the top of the public’s agenda. So, it has become the first test for devolution and whether it can do something meaningful on homelessness.”
Although he is only a few months into his term, Burnham is clear that he wants his mayoralty to be powered by citizen involvement, something that he believes will ensure his policies have the biggest public impact. “This is the big thing that has come out of our work so far,” he says. “If you are to realise a city-region’s potential, then you have to involve people differently. Running a city or a city region in the old Whitehall way – i.e. publishing strategy documents decided in closed rooms and then instructing the public sector to work in a certain way – is now so totally out of date it is utterly irrelevant.”
Instead, Burnham prefers a system of codesign, one that involves not just his team in the city centre but also groups, individuals and organisations from across Greater Manchester. “This is the opportunity that comes with having a decision-making body close to where people are – you could never do this from Whitehall,” he says.
An example of this approach in action is one of his key initiatives on homelessness. Burnham’s team has created a Homelessness Action Network, a collection of all the organisations – charitable, voluntary, public, some businesses – who are working on the issue. “We have engaged them in writing the strategy on rough sleeping and homelessness,” he says. “And on a completely different topic – digital and tech – we have convened an initial summit meeting of all the players in that world, and I have asked them to write a plan for skills and infrastructure. So, this principle of codesign is something that we are really putting at the heart of everything we’re doing.”
Significant strides are already being made. “There is a massive appetite for this – it is huge,” adds Burnham. “In many ways, we’re probably not opening up quickly enough for people. But remember it’s not year zero – Greater Manchester has had a strong partnership culture over a long period of time. However, there is a feeling we can take it to the next level and also have more influence on policies that have traditionally been out of our reach.”
One policy area that Burnham has got an eye on for the future is that of artificial intelligence (AI). Certainly not a sceptic, he is clearly intrigued by its possibilities. “You’ve got to find ways in which it can work for the public good,” he reflects. “If you allow it to be something that lives in the shadows, then the public will become quite fearful of it. So I think it really is incumbent on public authorities to embrace the notion of it and encourage those in that industry to think about how they can develop it in such a way that it adds to the public good.”
He goes on to say that AI can play a part in the development of smart cities. “For me, a smart city is not just about making the traffic lights run better, it is more about how you use it to improve people’s lives in terms of opportunities and access to skills,” he says. “We’re thinking about that here by creating a new system to support young people through digital connections. There is maybe a role for AI in this, but the thing is to be positive, and the cities that do it on the front foot and look at it for its potential are likely to reap the biggest rewards.”
“Potential”, “front foot”, “positive” – now that sounds like a nice summation of Burnham’s approach to his mayoralty as a whole. One thing’s for sure, it’s set to be a busy three years.
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