Andy Burnham is mayor of Greater Manchester – so what should his priorities be?

The obligatory tram picture. Image: Getty.

What can Greater Manchester’s new mayor do to re-energise its outer towns and boroughs?

Andy Burnham’s victory in the city-region’s first mayoral election was in part a result of his appeal to the ‘Metrolink towns’: places like Rochdale, Ashton and Eccles, that sit at the ends of Greater Manchester’s transport network. He received more Constituency Labour Party nominations from outside Manchester and Salford than his party rivals Tony Lloyd and Ivan Lewis. And during the election campaign emphasised the need to spread the prosperity of Manchester’s booming city centre to its outer towns.

Rhetorically at least, this marks a shift from the Manchester model of recent years, which has focused on driving investment, jobs and population into the urban core. There is increasing awareness that economic growth in the city centre has not ‘spilled over’ to many parts of the city region, despite improved connectivity.

Low pay and poor productivity, scourges of the UK economy since the 2008-09 recession, are evident in all ten Greater Manchester districts. But they’re particularly prominent in the northern boroughs of Rochdale, Oldham and Wigan, and the idea of a more spatially inclusive economic model for Greater Manchester is gaining traction. Here are a few steps Mr Burnham could take to promote the outer reaches of our city-region.

Invest in Post-19 education

Unemployment in Greater Manchester, whilst above the national average, is not particularly high by historic standards. A bigger problem in many parts of the city-region is underemployment – residents in Oldham, Rochdale, Wigan, Bolton and Tameside are more likely to have jobs that are seasonal, temporary or part-time, and many have few prospects of progression.

Research shows the majority of those employed in sectors such as care, catering and retail have no or very few qualifications. The social and economic cost of people stuck in low-paid jobs, not fulfilling their potential, is significant. With the post-19 skills budget set to be fully devolved to Greater Manchester from 2018, the new mayor should provide more opportunities for adults to upskill, retrain and progress to more secure work.

Improve orbital transport links

Despite extensions to the Metrolink over recent years, a surprisingly high percentage of Greater Manchester journeys are still done by road – almost 50 per cent in total, with 41 per cent by car.

A key reason for the car’s continuing dominance is the poor public transport links between local authority areas. Despite 48 per cent of commuting trips crossing council boundaries, the Metrolink is overly focused on bringing people into the city centre. Put simply, if you want to travel from Rochdale to Bury via Metrolink, you’ll need to go into Victoria Station then back out again.

The de-regulation of buses since the 1980s has led to chaotic and disorganised networks across England. In Greater Manchester, commuters in Bolton, Wigan and Salford see services cut, whilst the Wilmslow Road corridor – dubbed Europe’s busiest bus route – sees 60 buses an hour trundle down its narrow roads.

Using his newly devolved powers to re-regulate the bus network, the Mayor should prioritise links between M60 towns like Rochdale, Oldham and Bury. In the longer term, a Metrolink circle line running around the city-region would better reflect the jobs geography of Greater Manchester than the current city-centric network.

Develop a mix of new housing

The emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), a new and comprehensive plan to guide development across the city-region, proved controversial during the election campaign. The GMSF includes proposals to develop new housing on parts of the Green Belt, particularly in Stockport and Rochdale, and is opposed by well-organised local resident groups. Some candidates, including the Liberal Democrats’ Jane Brophy, pledged to scrap the plan, whilst Mr Burnham called for a “radical rewrite”.

The reality is that Greater Manchester needs to build at least 11,000 new homes a year to keep up with a rising population, and there aren’t enough brownfield sites alone to meet this need. City centre apartments will meet some of the demand, but there is a desperate need for more homes for families and first-time buyers in the places people most want to live.

That means building out, as well as up. Mr Burnham should resist the urge to cave in to political pressure, and embrace the GMSF as the best option to solve Greater Manchester’s looming housing shortage.

Re-energise the high street

Many town centres still haven’t recovered from the last recession. With dearly-loved brands like Woolworths and BHS departing, high streets are increasingly reliant on bargain stores and charity shops to drive footfall, and the retail-led regeneration which transformed many British towns through the 1990s and 2000s looks unlikely to be replicated.

The success of Altrincham’s Market Hall shows what can be achieved by a different model of regeneration. A decade ago, the town had rising levels of high street vacancies and was struggling to compete with the nearby Trafford Centre. Now, thanks to a dedicated team of local business leaders and backing from the local council, the Market Hall hosts local traders, street food and craft stalls, drawing in customers from across South Manchester.

Replicating Altrincham’s strategy won’t be possible for all towns – its position near some of Cheshire’s most affluent towns gives it a distinct advantage – but the mayor should use his leverage to support local initiatives that improve town centre footfall, like Rochdale’s efforts to attract more small businesses.

Bridging the divide 

Last year’s EU Referendum laid bare the stark divide between the gleaming towers, professional jobs and street food markets of England’s largest city centres, and the smaller towns which surround them. In few places is this cleavage more apparent than Greater Manchester, where the jobs-heavy districts of Manchester, Stockport and Trafford had majority Remain votes, whilst the other seven boroughs voted to Leave.

Bridging these ‘Two Englands’ is a task not only for Westminster, but for our regional politicians. For Greater Manchester’s new mayor, Brexit should be a warning of what happens when the margins feel marginalised.

Tom Arnold is a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester's School of Planning & Environmental Management. His research assesses the application of economic geography and territorial governance models in Northern England. This article previously appeared on the Manchester Policy Blog.

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London Overground is experimenting with telling passengers which bits of the next train is busiest

There must be a better way than this: Tokyo during a 1972 rail strike. Image: Getty.

One of the most fun things to do, for those who enjoy claustrophobia and other people’s body odour, is to attempt to use a mass transit system at rush hour.

Travelling on the Central line at 6pm, for example, gives you all sorts of exciting opportunities to share a single square inch of floor space with a fellow passenger, all the while becoming intimately familiar with any personal hygiene problems they may happen to have. On some, particularly lovely days you might find you don’t even get to do this for ages, but first have to spend some exciting time enjoying it as a spectator sport, before actually being able to pack yourself into one unoccupied cranny of a train.

But fear not! Transport for London has come up with a plan: telling passengers which bits of the train have the most space on them.

Here’s the science part. Many trains include automatic train weighing systems, which do exactly what the name suggests: monitoring the downward force on any individual wheel axis in real time. The data thus gathered is used mostly to optimise the braking.

But it also serves as a good proxy for how crowded a particular carriage is. All TfL are doing here is translating that into real time information visible to passengers. It’s using the standard, traffic light colour system: green means go, yellow means “hmm, maybe not”, red means “oh dear god, no, no, no”. 

All this will, hopefully, encourage some to move down the platform to where the train is less crowded, spreading the load and reducing the number of passengers who find themselves becoming overly familiar with a total stranger’s armpit.

The system is not unique, even in London: trains on the Thameslink route, a heavy-rail line which runs north/south across town (past CityMetric towers!) has a similar system visible to passengers on board. And so far it’s only a trial, at a single station, Shoreditch High Street.

But you can, if you’re so minded, watch the information update every few seconds or so here.

Can’t see why you would, but I can’t see why I would either, and that hasn’t stopped me spending much of the day watching it, so, knock yourselves out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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