Interviews

10.12.17

Andy Burnham: the crisis unfolding in front of our eyes

With homelessness on the rise across the country, politicians in central and local government are desperately looking for new solutions. Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, tells PSE’s Josh Mines about his plans to stamp out rough sleeping in the region.

Homelessness, as Andy Burnham tells me, is “a crisis unfolding in front of our eyes.” The latest figures from charity Homeless Link published at the start of 2017 suggest that over 4,000 people sleep rough on Britain’s streets every night, a number which has been sharply on the rise since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

Since then, rough sleeping has soared by 134% nationwide, including a 16% rise just from 2015 to 2016. This increase can be seen starkly in Greater Manchester, where in January, it was reported that homelessness had risen 41% from the previous year to around 189 people sleeping rough – four times the number in 2010.

This has not gone unnoticed by central government. Alongside Burnham’s own measures, including the creation of a Mayor’s Homelessness Fund and allowing GPs to treat rough sleepers without them needing to sign up to surgeries, Whitehall has released money through a number of separate pots to directly tackle Greater Manchester’s homeless problem.

In October, Theresa May handed Burnham £3.8m to fix the issue in his region. Later, in the Autumn Budget, chancellor Philip Hammond announced that a new homelessness taskforce would be set up alongside a £28m fund in three ‘Housing First’ pilots in the West Midlands, Manchester and Liverpool, whilst also pledging to halve rough sleeping in the UK by 2022, and end it by 2027.

When I spoke to the mayor after the release of the £3.8m pot, though he saw the fund as welcome, he admitted that alone it would not be enough to achieve his personal target of ending rough sleeping by 2020.

“It’s a very big contribution towards that goal, but we will carry on working at this,” he told me. “It’s absolutely top of my list of priorities – it’s a personal priority.

“It can’t be solved with one cheque from the government, as strong as that cheque is.”

Collaboration between the public, private and third sectors

The challenge for local government leaders in tackling homelessness is that it is a complex problem with varying roots. Issues with housing, drugs and even the breakdown of relationships in families can all contribute to someone being forced onto the streets, and for bodies like the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, looking at all of these elements in such a large geographical area is tricky.

For this reason, the mayor is pursuing a collaborative approach. He has brought together organisations across the public sector in health and social care, as well as the private and third sectors, to all pitch in and contribute to ending Greater Manchester’s homelessness problem.

As Burnham explained, this approach will be vital if he is to meet his ambitious target by 2020.

“I don’t think people want me to say we’ll just throw taxpayers’ money at this,” he told me.

“Of course we want to spend public money to help people who have fallen through the net, but also it’s about contributions from the private sector.

“They have come forward and made donations alongside individual members of the public. It’s about everybody pulling together to tackle what is an unfolding crisis; it’s a crisis that has been unfolding in front of our eyes, and I’m really pleased that every part of Greater Manchester is contributing.”

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The spirit of Manchester

One thing that helps with this, the mayor told me, is the spirit and collaborative community environment found in Manchester and its surrounding areas.

“It is easier to do this in a place like Manchester,” he stated. “In fact, there is pressure on me to do something, and I feel that every time I walk out of this building and walk around like I do, people come up to me and ask me whether I can do more about this problem.

“But that’s just the nature of Mancunians, isn’t it? They don’t like this, there’s always been a regard for the underdog, and no one wants to see someone suffering on the street. Rightly, they hold me to account and are telling me to get this sorted.”

Though Burnham has only be in office since May, progress has reportedly been fast on implementing some of his homelessness policies.

“We opened a shelter in October with 15 beds which has already made a difference,” the mayor explained.

“There’s more coming on stream soon. So we are already making a difference – it isn’t all about jam tomorrow, there is stuff happening right now.

“I’d hope that this time next year we’ll be in a very different place. I won’t sit here and say there won’t be anyone sleeping rough on our streets, but I think it will be better than it is right now.”

There are still, however, some severe obstacles in the way of serious progress being made. Burnham argued that Universal Credit (UC), which has been hugely criticised for leaving families worse off and driving people into poverty, is directly responsible for the growing homelessness problem in the north west and the rest of the country.

“If the UC plans proceed on the current timetable, then all the good we’re doing may be overtaken by the extra numbers of people put on the street,” he stated.

“The warnings are mounting from all sources now about what this could do if they proceed on the same timetable.

“It’s not necessarily UC itself; it’s the way that it is being done, leaving people without money for six weeks. What that’s doing is plunging people into a spiral of debt that they then can’t get out of.”

It seems that Burnham’s message has been heard by central government. In the Autumn Budget, Hammond said that a £1.5bn fund would be released to ease the problems arising from the roll-out of the currently unpopular policy.

This money will finance the reduction of the waiting period down from six to five weeks, ensuring that people go at least a week less without receiving essential payments.

The 2020 target

At the conclusion of our conversation, I asked Burnham an important question: does he still believe that rough sleeping can be tackled in Greater Manchester by the end of the decade?

His answer was clear: “I’m still confident we can end rough sleeping by 2020. It’s not just the government money; of course that helps, but it’s more through the determination of this place and its people that we will find a way.

“Of course, you may see people on the streets by that time, because during the day there may be people who are still out there. But what I want to say is that by 2020 there will be enough provision in place for everyone to go somewhere every night in the week, so that no one has to spend a night in the cold.”

Though there’s still a long way to go to hitting this target, it seems that politicians are finally waking up to the elephant on Britain’s doorstep.

Whether or not the ambitious targets set out by Burnham and Hammond will be accomplished is yet to be seen, but at least positive action is now being implemented to shelter vulnerable people in society and make sure more people are not turfed out into the cold.

Top image © Peter Byrne/PA Archive

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