Greater Manchester mayor says government must trust regions to make their own decisions
By Helen Pidd
8 May 2019
A failure by successive governments to break “London-centric decision-making” led to the Brexit vote and “the political mess the country is now in”, according to Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.
Burnham, who held various ministerial posts in Gordon Brown’s Labour government, said: “People have focused a lot on the divisions that the referendum brought out, with leave v remain. But there’s probably a bigger one underlying it, which is London versus the rest.”
The division damaged social cohesion and united communities against London, said Burnham, who was the MP for Leigh in Wigan from 2001 to 2017. “It creates that sense of two countries. Some areas are treated better than others and that has built division in our country over a long period of time … It does unite people, the feeling we in the north – particularly on transport – we are second-class citizens. Some of this bubbled through in the Scottish referendum and it undermines the social cohesion of the country.”
Stressing he was not “anti-London”, Burnham said his problem was with “the London-centric nature of our establishment and political system. I saw it in the Blair government, the Brown government: there’s a London-centricity that’s so hard to break. Our failure to break it not completely but significantly explains the political mess the country is now in.”
He accepted he had failed in government to break the status quo. “A moment of revelation for me was when I was chief secretary to the Treasury and I was asked by [the then chancellor] Alastair Darling to fund Crossrail and I said to the Treasury, yes, but I wanted it to be a package of transport announcements across the country. Nothing came back. In the end we got closer and closer to the 2007 spending review and all we had was on the revamp of Birmingham New Street.
“The way the UK allocates public funding, particularly infrastructure funding, is according to an economic test, not a social test. And therefore it has a tendency to shovel more and more into the areas that are already doing well.”
Twelve years on, Crossrail has still not opened and its budget has soared to £17.6bn. The £600m revamp of Birmingham’s main station was eventually completed in 2015, two years before Andy Street left his job as John Lewis’s managing director to become the mayor of the West Midlands in 2017.
He and Burnham were in the first cohort of “metro mayors”, the brainchild of George Osborne when he was chancellor. Each has a different portfolio of powers to exercise over transport, skills, planning and other sectors.
London gets a disproportionate amount of transport infrastructure spending, said Street, a Conservative. “When I first stood for election in 2016 the capital investment per head of transport in the West Midlands was one-seventh of what it was in London. And that cannot be right because you end up with two completely different public transport systems. The consequence of that is less good experiences for people living here, in terms of what they put up with on a day-to-day basis, and actually it damages productivity. It is not in the national interest for that to be the case,” he said.
Street said devolving more powers to metro mayors would redress the imbalance in productivity and wealth. Most of the big decisions still need sign-off from Whitehall, he said. “True devolution would be a single pot of cash devolved to us and we would decide on the relative priorities, on how much to spend on transport and skills and so forth, the subjects under which we do have control,” he said.
The government must trust the regions more to make their own decisions, said Burnham. “You can keep changing the government as many times as you want, but it’s never going to fully understand Greater Manchester, what it thinks, feels, needs. We are hitting a really critical moment, devolution is hitting a crunch point here, particularly with regards to health, and how real is our devolution?”
So far, Greater Manchester has been the only devolved region to take charge of its own NHS and social care spending. In April 2016 it took over a budget of £6bn plus an extra £450m to cover a five-year transformation programme.
Burnham said he wanted the freedom to take a fully integrated approach to long-term health challenges. “I want us to be freed up to properly to say, right, we will work really differently as one public service and truly embrace prevention,” he said. “Are we ready to jump over the edge and see if we are really ready to invest differently? I genuinely think devolution is the answer.”
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