A wall of angry protesters greeted Andy Burnham when he arrived at hustings in Salford for the Greater Manchester mayoral elections earlier this month. One grey faced homeless man had pitched a tent outside St Philip’s chapel and was sitting in a sleeping bag next to a sign bemoaning “the worst housing crisis since the second world war”.
Much of the media coverage around the inaugural mayoral elections in English city regions on Thursday has focused on how few voters know these polls are taking place – with even fewer giving a stuff that they will soon be able to choose their own Sadiq Khan/Boris Johnson/Bill de Blasio (delete according to your own political prejudices).
But in Greater Manchester, where the mayor will arguably have more power than his or her London counterpart, interest in the campaign is being boosted by a problem which existed mostly in the shadows when Burnham, the hot favourite, last won an election. That was just two years ago, when the one-time health secretary was re-elected as the Labour MP for Leigh in Wigan with a 14,096 majority – before he tried and failed to become Labour leader and suddenly discovered a zeal for devolution and local politics.
These days, residents in the Northern Quarter, Manchester’s nightlife district, have become used to stepping over a homeless person when they leave their flats, though it never gets any easier. Shoppers in the less ritzy streets of Wigan and Rochdale know there will be a beggar at every cash machine. Want to visit Bundobust, an Indian tapas joint in Piccadilly Gardens that Jay Rayner raved about in the Observer? Prepare to run the gauntlet of zombies high on a very different kind of Spice: even in broad daylight half the square seems to be off their heads on the horribly addictive, formerly legal high.
One Friday in April Greater Manchester police recorded 24 Spice-related incidents, including one which resulted in a paramedic being assaulted. For a while there were tents pitched all over Manchester city centre, with predictably appalling consequences: last summer two Spice-addled men were sentenced to life in jail for beating up a homeless man and setting fire to him in his tent under a railway arch. All this in a place the Economist recently argued should be made the UK’s new capital: “So much of what is wrong with Britain today stems from the fact that it is unusually centralised,” wrote the columnist, Bagehot, suggesting MPs relocate from the Palace of Westminster to the Manchester Central conference centre.
London, of course, has its own rough sleeping problem. But it is perhaps not quite as obvious as Manchester’s. “I live a five-minute walk from work and I’m guaranteed to walk past at least 10 homeless people,” said Mike, a marketing and social media manager shopping in the Arndale Centre this week. When Jeremy Paxman came up to film the last series of University Challenge at Media City in Salford the presenter said he couldn’t believe how many homeless people he encountered when he returned to his hotel each evening.
Burnham didn’t expect homelessness to be the key issue in his campaign when he launched his mayoral bid last year. Back then he was making slightly cringeworthy statements about “putting the swagger back into Manchester’s music scene” and suggesting it was tough growing up in the north because people “took the mickey” if you wanted to be a lawyer or an MP. He still has a tendency to suggest that everyone in Greater Manchester is drinking Bovril and trying to be Oasis: earlier this month he responded to the Tory idea of giving special “barista visas” to young European latte makers by tweeting: “God forbid the idea of waiting longer in the morning for their posh coffee.”
It is not coffee that has become the issue of the first Greater Manchester mayoral campaign, however, but the people camped outside every coffee shop. “Homelessness has become a lightning rod in the campaign, and it symbolises a lot of what people feel isn’t right at the moment,” says Burnham, who last week said he would not be seeking re-election in Leigh, regardless of the mayoral result.
The housing hustings in St Philips were “the most explosive I’ve ever seen”, says Burnham afterwards. Some people blamed central government cuts – “they’ve seen the correlation between the austerity drive and the numbers on the streets”. Others blame the local councils, nine out of 10 of which are run by Labour. Burnham accepts his own party is not blameless: “There was an anger about housing policy in Greater Manchester and a sense that Greater Manchester hasn’t been focused enough on affordable housing. I agree, and that’s got to change. There’s cranes in the sky building luxury apartments while the numbers in the doorways are going up all the time.”
The annual crane survey by consultancy firm Deloitte praised Manchester’s “resurgence” and found there had been an “unparalleled scale and volume of construction” in 2016. At the same time rough sleeping continues to rise in Greater Manchester: the annual count of homeless people, carried out last November, suggested 189 people were now sleeping rough across the region, up from 134 in 2015. Even those in homes can expect wildly different lives depending on where they live: men in Rochdale have an average life expectancy of just 66, compared with 78 in the village of Timperley in Trafford.
The West Midlands Combined Authority will be made up of four Local Enterprise Partnership areas which include 22 local authorities
WMCA by Local Enterprise Partnership Area
Coventry & Warwickshire
Greater Birmingham & Solihull
Coventry & Warwickshire
Greater Birmingham & Solihull
Guardian graphic | Source: WMCA
The reasons for the sharp rise in rough sleeping are complicated and disputed. But some of the blame is put at the door of the man who dreamt up the idea of these new “metro” mayors while pushing through austerity measures which saw the budgets of the 10 town halls in Greater Manchester cut by almost £2bn since 2010: George Osborne, former chancellor of the exchequer, who made mayors a condition of the devolution agreements he signed with city regions as part of his Northern Powerhouse project.
Greater Manchester – that is the bit of the north-west between Lancashire and Yorkshire that includes Manchester, Salford, Trafford, Stockport, Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham and Tameside – was the first to strike a deal with Osborne, back in November 2014, persuading Whitehall to devolve powers on police, fire, housebuilding, skills and transport. On 1 April 2016 the region also became the first in the country to take control of its combined health and social care budgets – a sum of more than £6bn to take care of 2.8 million residents.
Burnham’s main rival is Sean Anstee, the thoughtful 29-year-old who runs Trafford, the wealthiest of Greater Manchester’s 10 boroughs, but grew up in a council house. He too says voters are unhappy about the disconnect between the visible signs of economic growth and the increasingly visible homelessness problem.
“It’s upsetting and distressing and it shouldn’t happen,” said Anstee, pointing out “there’s an economic impact on the city as well. We want to show off Greater Manchester as an investment location to companies around the world, to create jobs and economic growth.”
But, Anstee suggests, if the first thing people see when they get off the train at Piccadilly is a series of sleeping bags in doorways and Spice victims wandering around like the living dead, it is hardly going to encourage investors to view Manchester as a city with its act together.
One of Burnham’s most eye-catching manifesto pledges is to donate 15% of his salary to a new homelessness fund each year in his bid to eradicate rough-sleeping in Greater Manchester by 2020. The mayor’s pay has yet to be decided, but is expected to be around £100,000 annually. If Burnham wins, which the bookies think is very likely (he’s 1/10 favourite), that means a pay-rise of just over £10,000, after the homeless deduction, on his MP’s salary of £74,962. At least 10 people or organisations have promised to match that donation, with one offering a building for free in central Manchester to be used for homeless people, he says.
Burnham’s pledge is “laudable”, reckons Anstee, “but we need a solution that’s far greater”. His manifesto promises “to lead a concerted effort, joined together to help support those who are homeless or sleeping rough off the streets, and then stay off by offering a warm place to stay, access to education and employment and ongoing health and wellbeing support.”
Anstee’s own big idea is to force homebuilders to reserve a proportion of new homes for local people “so that young people growing up in their local area have a decent chance of being able to get on to the housing ladder in their local community.” He also wants to establish a “year of service” to help young people develop their work skills and play a part in their community.
He is highly unlikely to get the chance to implement any of his ideas: he has totted up the 1.8m general election votes in the region and reckons Labour got around 600,000 and the Tories 300,000. But if he polls well it will be seen as a sign that the Tory brand is undergoing detoxification in Labour’s northern heartlands.
Really, though, it’s a local election being fought on local issues. The other key issue in the campaign, both men agree, is transport. Though Manchester has an airport, plenty of train stations and the rapidly expanding Metrolink tram network, the truth is that most residents still rely on their cars or deeply inadequate and expensive bus services.
Anstee likes to tell would-be voters that where he grew up, in Partington, 10 miles to the south-west of Manchester city centre, there was just one bus an hour and the last bus out was just after tea. Burnham has noticed that car journeys in Greater Manchester that used to take half an hour now often take double that, and has heard a litany of complaints about fare pricing.
“Young people have told me now that if they are coming into Manchester for a night out, they organise an Uber on Snapchat rather than get on a bus or Metrolink and it works out a lot cheaper,” he says. No wonder the inner city streets are choked with mini cabs. If you live in Old Trafford, it costs £2.80 single for a two-stop tram journey into the city centre that takes five minutes: that’s 40p more than an Oyster card single between any stop in Zones 1 and 2 on the tube in London.
A new law will allow the mayor to control the myriad bus operators in Greater Manchester and force them all to play by the same rules – Burnham was mocked for saying he would like the buses to all be painted the same colour, as Transport for London does in London. But at a hustings for autistic people and their carers at the Friends’ Meeting House in Manchester last week, his idea to force all bus companies to verbally announce every stop was warmly received.
Jane Brophy, the Liberal Democrat candidate, says transport is one of the top three issues raised on the doorstep, along with concerns about leaving the EU (though only three of the 10 boroughs voted Remain) and controversial plans to house the 300,000 new residents expected in Greater Manchester over the next 20 years by building on vast swathes of greenbelt. She wants to invest some of the region’s health budget into cycling and walking, to cut air pollution and encourage healthy lifestyles.
Both she and Burnham say they currently wouldn’t commute into Manchester by bike at the moment because it’s not safe. Brophy wants to copy London’s bike hire scheme – “Brophy bikes, I’ll call them” – and, like Burnham, wants to invest in more segregated cycle lanes. He recently collated figures showing show almost 3,000 cyclists were killed or injured on the region’s roads in the last five years.
All the candidates were relieved when their election wasn’t postponed by a month, to coincide with the general election, even if it would mean a higher turnout. Burnham in particular does not want his campaign to be overshadowed by the mess his party is in nationally: his 12-page manifesto makes no reference to Jeremy Corbyn at all.
He insists a strong mayor can challenge the “dysfunctionality of the Westminster system” which he sees as the root of the “political crisis” currently engulfing Britain as we head towards an EU exit and contemplate a breakup of the United Kingdom. Greater Manchester has been at the heart of radical change many times before, he notes in his manifesto, so why not again?
First Burnham has got to win – then he must face high expectations that he will be able to sort out the region’s woes without central government help. On Tuesday, when he was heading down to London to give his last Westminster speech about the blood contamination scandal, dozens of homeless people stormed the roof of a building next to Manchester’s busy Oxford Road station in a protest about the city’s housing shortage, closing the surrounding roads. If he doesn’t get a grip of the problem quickly, he is going to have a lot more protests to deal with: and this time he will be the bogeyman on the banners.
Additional reporting by Charlotte Puckering