Three thoughts on Andy Burnham’s approach to devolution

Andy Burnham in 2016. Image: Getty.

Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham returned to Westminster in early September – If only to give a speech before heading up to the first Convention of the North in Newcastle starting the following day.

His aim was to win over ‘SW1A hearts and minds’ to devolve to cities, and to highlight that that any sort of successful Brexit policy must be a successful devolution policy – from agreeing a workable exit deal in time, to actually addressing the issues of economic, social and political disenfranchisement that he thinks drove the vote for Leave.

Three elements of the speech stood out in particular:

Brexit is occupying all of national government bandwidth – to the detriment of cities across the country

It is telling that media coverage ahead of Burnham’s speech focused on his position on a potential second EU referendum, rather than his main focus: the challenges and opportunities cities across the country face in the coming years, second referendum or not. This serves as apt analogy for how Brexit is consuming the national political agenda. Given the huge political focus and resources needed to manage the UK’s departure from the EU, that is unsurprising – but it is to the detriment of cities across the country.

For example, Burnham highlighted that Greater Manchester has ambitions to improve bus services with the introduction of franchising. But this depends on parliament passing an order, which it apparently does not have the time to do. While UK cities still rely on individual departments or legislation to sign off on many of their plans, Westminster’s focus on Brexit pushes urban issues to the back of the queue.

Devolution can deal with the causes as well as the result of the Brexit vote

Devolution won’t just take work off of the hands of a government trying to figure out what to do in light of the vote. It puts those powers into the hands of people who had voted Leave in order to take back control.

And greater control can mean better policy – to suit local priorities or circumstances. Burnham pointed to Greater Manchester’s Working Well programme – which supported people with health problems into work – as a clear example of how devolution allowed local policy to break open siloes, and use local knowledge that national policy cannot match.

If Westminster is to be consumed by Brexit from now into the next decade, then devolution to cities is an important antidote to that problem.

Nowhere should be left behind – but cities must be willing to work with government on devolution

Burnham called for “all places to be in line” for devolution, though it isn’t clear what that might look like. The government’s upcoming Devolution Framework also aims to tidy up an unstructured process so far, to ensure that all places know what is available and how to get it.

Burnham made a clear case for cities as the vital drivers of growth in the global economy, but argued that nearly all UK cities lack the tools to become global cities. But while arguing for government to go further on devolution, Burnham did not call upon leaders in major cities without a fully-powered metro mayor to do the same in return, and take advantage of the powers and funding already on offer. This will be crucial in ensuring that more urban areas can benefit from devolution in the coming years

The lack of government bandwidth means that bespoke deals that don’t put cities in the lead, or those that dismantle existing deals, will be unlikely to happen. Local leaders should not expect government to go further if they have gone nowhere, or backwards. While nominally a bottom up process, devolution deals for big cities are in reality take-it-or-leave-it on Westminster’s terms. These cities are too important to fall behind.

These are live issues in government. Ministers should take heed of Burnham’s speech to help him and other leaders like Andy Street and Steve Rotheram respond to the local economic, social, and political priorities that were there before 23 June 2016.

Simon Jeffrey is a policy officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.