End of term report: How is Andy Burnham doing as mayor of Greater Manchester?

Andy Burnham after winning his election last May. Image: Getty.

Continuing the Centre for Cities’ round up of the first half-year of metro mayors, we look at Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester.

Greater Manchester (GM) helped give birth to the Northern Powerhouse. It was the first city to negotiate a devolution deal, blazing a trail for the others to follow. As the front runner for city government over recent decades, GM will always be the first place an observer will look towards to check on the health of city devolution.

The mayoralty was boosted even before it officially came into being when former cabinet minister Andy Burnham threw his hat into the ring for the Labour mayoral nomination. This signalled to the public the importance of the role, which in GM comes with a more extensive set of powers than in any other city region, including over crime, health and social.

But six months on from his clear victory in May’s election, is GM still the leading light of devolution?

Progress and influence

One of the key ways Burnham has made an impression is by using his high profile and mayoral platform to represent the concerns of people living in GM – and across the north – on the national stage. In particular, he has worked closely with Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of Liverpool City Region, to harry government for greater investment in northern transport. The two mayors of the north west helped to put the Northern Powerhouse Rail concept at the top of the political agenda over the summer, and led the indignant response in the north to the cancellation of full rail electrification between Leeds and Manchester.

Moreover, Burnham displayed great leadership and visibility in the aftermath of the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena in May, leading the city’s response and mourning. His extensive range of powers has also enabled him to wade into debates that other mayors can have less influence over. For example, as police & crime Commissioner (a duty transferred to the mayoralty upon its inception), Burnham has taken the government to task on crime policy, including criticising the Prevent programme (aimed at tackling radicalisation and terrorism).

The mayor’s impact has not just been based on visibility and representation, and he has taken concrete steps to tackle key policy issues in GM. For example, our Metro Mayor Dashboard shows that too many residents of the city region have no formal qualifications, and there is room for improvement in the schools. Here Burnham is already acting, using his convening powers to bring together different actors to help address the large number of children who start education without being ‘school ready’.

This coordination across different departments and localities, breaking open of silos and clear leadership is exactly the impact we would have hoped metro mayors to achieve. His work to improve the quality and availability of apprenticeships will also be watched by other mayors and national government. The evaluative and analytical strength of New Economy (the GM combined authority’s research and policy institute) means there will be plenty of data to work with.

Making sure that transport connects every community affordably and efficiently is also vital in ensuing GM is a good place to live and work– and the mayor’s move to introduce half-price bus fares for 16-18 year olds was a positive step towards this. Burnham has an opportunity to take further action to make buses work better for communities and the economy by using the powers afforded to the mayors through the Bus Services Bill.


Opportunities and challenges

Burnham took office with a civil service at his disposal which is far better resourced and well-established than would have been found by any of his other fellow mayors. The long lead-in time from the first devolution deal and the interim mayor gave the GMCA and New Economy time to develop the institutions to support the mayor. Burnham’s early nomination and clear manifesto will also have given the organisation a clear steer on how best to support him achieve his ambitions from day one.

All of these factors in combination – high profile, big mandate, and a well prepared and resourced office – should give Burnham the political, analytical, and operational weight to make serious running on the policies of his choosing with local and national government.

However, the downside to this strong record of collaborative working is that the mayor is a newcomer in an organisation that already had clear plans in every policy area with timelines into the middle of the century. As such, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there have been some grumblings from local leaders in GM who feel that Burnham has made some promises to the public – and demands of the councils – which overlook the work they are already doing in their area, such as the mayor’s recent call-to-action over tackling homelessness and housing in the city centre. If Burnham wants to significantly alter the planned route of Greater Manchester’s ‘ocean-liner of state’, it will require him to manage relations with the leaders who had set it on that course.

Another area of difference between mayor and council is around development in the city centre. Burnham has consistently suggested that the development strategy of Manchester City Council in the city centre does not deliver enough social value, with too much luxury housing and too little affordable development. He has also raised concerns about an over concentration of investment and growth in the city centre, to the detriment of other areas across the city region.

Both points are understandable. However, ultimately GM needs a thriving central business district, supported by adequate office space and accommodation, to continue to grow and attract more high-paying jobs.

Instead, Burnham can take steps to ensure that GM’s growth is as inclusive as possible by using the forthcoming spatial framework for the city region to address the housing, transport and skills issues that can prevent people from accessing GM’s prosperity and jobs. Grasping the nettle on housing – by providing enough land in the most in demand parts of the city, including considering developing green belt land in these areas – will help to make the city region more affordable and reduce hardships. Burnham should seek to support partnerships such as Matrix Homes across Greater Manchester to lever in local assets, funding and expertise, and recycle that funding into more housebuilding.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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How the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  


While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.