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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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.