Speaking to a packed hall of delegates at last Wednesday’s Spotlight conference on the Northern Powerhouse, the former Secretary of State for Health, Labour leadership candidate and current Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, responded to criticisms that the Northern Powerhouse project gave undue focus to “core cities” of the North West, particularly Manchester. “I don’t want people to think that Manchester is the London of the North, disconnected and doing our own thing.”
Earlier speakers had bemoaned the lack of attention given to smaller towns in the North of England, while other conceptions of the Powerhouse had openly talked of emulating the Randstad – the four highly connected and economically integrated Dutch cities of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht (read: Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull) – without much thought given to smaller cities and towns.
Burnham said that both towns and cities were overlooked by the region’s transport system. “Transport is the biggest challenge I face, and the day-to-day functioning of our fragmented and unaccountable transport system. All Northern cities are suffering from a system that doesn’t join up. The rail system is accountable to Whitehall, the buses are accountable to nobody, we run our trams but we can’t integrate those three modes into an Oyster-style system. Oh, and by the way, you don’t have full control over the roads or the box junctions like London has. It is a very messy picture.”
Burnham wants London-style transport powers not only for Manchester, but for the region. “All Northern cities should demand the same powers as London to integrate transport and get basic day-to-day control over the levers. Without that then we can’t build the Northern Powerhouse that we’re here to discuss. Transport is the biggest barrier to achieving that,” he said. Along with his mayoral counterpart in Liverpool, Steve Rotheram, Burnham has wasted no time in lobbying for Westminster to prioritise a high-speed east-west rail link referred to as “HS3”, “Crossrail of the North”or “Northern Powerhouse Rail”.
When challenged on the latest homelessness figures (ending homelessness has been promoted as a one of Burnham’s flagship pledges), which show an increase in rough sleeping in the city of Manchester, the Mayor defended his record. “We’d seen a meteoric rise in rough sleeping since 2010, but for the first time in eight years, Greater Manchester recorded a decrease in the official statistics. That is linked to a scheme we’ve launched called A Bed Every Night… But Greater Manchester is a victim of national housing policy.”
Burnham said he thought Northern economic growth and prosperity would only come about with greater collaboration between new devolved authorities, and encouraged unity of purpose from Northern leaders.