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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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.