John Blundell talks to the Greater Manchester Mayor about power, crime and his relationship with the GMCA
It's been a busy few weeks for Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham. First he rubbished calls for a second Brexit referendum, then, a week later, he backed calls for a second vote. He's delivered his first major speech to Westminster since becoming mayor, pushing for further devolution, and defended the findings of the Lord Kerslake Inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing. In amongst all that he's continued calls for transport secretary Chris Grayling to act on the Northern Rail debacle, pledged to provide a bed for every rough sleeper through winter, and committed to help stop the spread of HIV in the region.
There's been plenty of pledges from Mr Burnham's office. On election in May 2017 he pledged to remove rough sleepers from Manchester's streets altogether by 2020 (it's getting worse), to tackle rising crime figures (you're more likely to fall victim to crime here than anywhere else in the country), and to overhaul the transport network (has the Metrolink improved? And what happened to regulating buses?).
There's growing discontent in some quarters that Mayor Burnham's results don't quite match all the noise. Can anyone really say that the state of the city has improved since May last year? We doubt it. Though Confidential has piles and piles of press releases which would have us believe otherwise.
With this is mind, we sent Rochdale councillor and occasional Confidential writer John Blundell to meet the mayor and ask him some pressing, and we think important, questions.
John Blundell writes...
Last year, Greater Manchester’s mayoral candidates ran into the election with a list of promises and reasons why the public should go to the polls and vote for them. But I do sometimes wonder if they ever thought about where all the money was going to come from to deliver on those commitments?
Greater Manchester is the jewel in the crown of English devolution for sure, but it hasn't gone as far as it did in Wales and Scotland. They enjoy much greater control of the money spent on their patch. To boot, our model requires the Mayor to get a majority of council leaders to agree with him in order to deliver his policies. In London, the Mayor and Greater London Authority sit above the councils, vesting more power in the individual. In this sense, Mr Burnham is the first among equals.
The reason I do primarily blame the government is that 75% of police funding comes centrally and 25% is paid for by council tax
We are undoubtedly better off with Mr Burnham when it comes to clout. He has connections with the Prime Minister and I firmly believe funding from government for homelessness would not have materialised if it wasn’t for Mr Burnham’s campaign.
His manifesto was heavily endorsed by the Greater Manchester public, but without powers and money from government, the options for delivering these commitments are limited. However, I do think he will meet many of his commitments.
Rather than pontificate, I decided to go to the horse’s mouth and get the Mayor’s view on his powers, his pledges and his relationship with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA).
Before becoming the Mayor of Greater Manchester you'd been a Secretary of State. Which gives you greater power?
Andy Burnham: "They both do. In many ways, the job I am doing now does feel a little like being back in a government department. It's like the role of a cabinet minister. I have been saying this for a while - there is an ability to make some real change happen, they both offer that opportunity.
"The first big difference is when you are in government you are in a policy silo; you are head of a department that deals with one facet of life. When you are sitting in that position, often what you find is some of the projects you come up with don't last because they are not broadly owned by every other department.
"As Mayor, I have policy responsibilities in different areas, so one difference is the ability to break down the silos. If you are trying to do something, it can add something to education, it can add something to health, it can be a distraction from crime.
"Another difference I would say is in the Whitehall context, it’s all highly politicised, the government opposition and all of that. The civil service, who I have a great regard for, would be a bit like 'yes minister, oh yes good idea minister' but then they do nothing about it.
"When it is very much about place it can be a unifying thing. I feel there is no divide here between politicians and civil servants, we are all trying to do the same thing, and that is a better working environment than your traditional government department."
Crime in Greater Manchester is rising, particularly violent crime and sex crime. We accept that there have been cuts, but what are you doing about it? You are the Police and Crime Commissioner, after all.
AB "This might sound self-serving, but to be clear, I think there is a clear causal link between austerity and rising crime. So, cuts to a range of services: councils; mental health; drug and alcohol services; critically the police, has created the conditions for crime to rise again."
But are you taking a multi-faceted approach? You said the benefit of the mayoral model was that you could break down silos?
AB: "I am going to come on to what we are doing to mitigate that, but I am trying to identify for you the primary cause, as far as I am concerned, of the rising crime we are seeing. The cause isn't a decision of the councils or anybody in Greater Manchester.
"There is a fear now of the criminal fraternity thing: 'It is less likely we will get caught now because they are not able to prosecute as many crimes as they once were.’ They are emboldened.
"But I am not hiding that there is a role for us to mitigate that and spend the money we do have as wisely as we possibly can. For the first time in eight years we are recruiting more police officers.
No, I can't say I won't be going back to the public saying we need more in tax...
"We are asking our public services to work in a very different way, very focused, particularly on teenagers because we think that there is more that needs to be done to help teenagers make the transition from school to what comes after school.
"I am, this is a small thing to some people but it matters to me, trying to find a way of funding the free bus pass for sixteen to eighteen year olds. Again, because I think that will help; if young people have a bit more hope for the future they will be less likely to turn to crime.
"I did take the decision we needed to raise council tax to pay for policing and we are now recruiting 100-ish more police officers.
"There are things we can do, but the thing to bear in mind is the reason I do primarily blame the government is that 75% of GMP's funding comes centrally and 25% is paid for by council tax."
You've talked a lot about government cuts, but what about local cuts? When you make commitments, say to end homelessness, are you not committing council money which isn't yours to spend?
AB: "The model that has been created here in Greater Manchester, it really should avoid that conflict because the GMCA model is different. The ten council leaders are my ten board members, if you like, and the model we’ve got here was built to get agreement between the GMCA plus the ten. So if we are going to do something, we all need to agree to do it, recognising the implications it has for everybody.
"When I was standing to be mayor, I had my draft of the manifesto and consulted all the council leaders on it, so it was a shared thing from the beginning. For instance, in the area of homelessness, we have been given funding to create the Social Impact Bond (SIB), another £1 million from the government for a new programme that councils can refer people directly into. It is a new resource they didn't have before.
"Another direct example of that would be Housing First. We are one of three pilot areas in the country to be given a lot of money to pioneer a new approach to homelessness called Housing First. This is where I can add value."
Manchester City Council appear to be behind your proposals, because the homelessness crisis in Manchester is so much greater. What about the other nine?
AB: "It is not divided into tenths, it is divided by need. I think everyone will accept that Manchester City Council must be the biggest user of the Housing First programme. But actually, as I walk around the city centre to get a ground level view of what is going on, what I am always struck by is that there are people from all ten boroughs.
"The third example is the Mayor's homelessness fund. I will be the first to say it has more modest levels of funding, but it is has raised over £120K so far and it is supporting organisations in all ten council areas. I can bring business and other investors to the table to raise extra voluntary funds that can help further achieve our aims - another way in which the Mayor can add value."
Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese has said that he would like two thirds of public money spent in Greater Manchester to come under the control of the GMCA. Other than the precept you have already used, are you thinking about other forms of taxation?
AB: "When I do ask them (the ten councils), it will be to do the things they have told me they want to see. Part of that precept is paying for the rewrite of the Greater Manchester Spacial Framework for instance, in order to protect our greenbelt. It is also being used to tackle road congestion.
"The next period of devolution is not to go back to government for more tax-raising powers, I would rather have more direct control over the tax funding that is already being spent in Greater Manchester.
"For example, the Department for Work and Pensions spend a large amount, many billions, here and I don't think they get the best results because they are spending that money based upon national tick box regimes that I don't think are designed for our people and our communities.
"A lot of it goes to irresponsible landlords who don't maintain properties and, therefore, don't house people very well, but they walk away with a lot of money. I think we can spend that money a lot better."
So you don't foresee the need for tax rises, or for more powers to do so?
AB: No, I can't say I won't be going back to the public saying we need more. I will at times, because of the commitments I have made. I will have to be honest with the public and use the mayoral precept, but it will be modest amounts. These are not big, I just don't have the power from the government to do that."
John Blundell is a Labour councillor for Smallbridge and Firgrove and theCabinet Member for Regeneration, Business, Skills & Employment on Rochdale Council. He is a graduate of Economics from the University of Manchester and was elected to Rochdale Council at just 20 years old.