Burnham: Early backlash against devolution is wholly unsurprising

It’s no wonder that there was a strong backlash against devolution from the very beginning given that the entire process looked like it was being shaped by the same “old thinking, old voices, and the old men in suits”, mayor of Greater Manchester (GM) Andy Burnham has argued.

In an emphatic keynote speech at yesterday’s People’s Powerhouse Conference, Burnham aired his grievances with the structures and institutions of Westminster, which he claimed is driving people away from politics in swathes.

Arguing that we’re living through “a political earthquake”, the new GM mayor said the EU Referendum was an interesting lightning rod: it helped lay bare “something that had been building for decades”.

“If you take away some of the specific issues around sovereignty and immigration, if you had gone to the core sentiment that underpinned that result, I think it was a frustration with the way politics was done,” he told delegates at the inaugural event.

“It was a strong sense in the country that the old way of doing things, the Brussels and Westminster system, worked better for some areas than it did for others. Some people in some places get a better deal than others do, and this system isn’t working for us.”

Speaking as someone who has been embedded in this system for almost two decades, Burnham argued the way Westminster is constructed is to blame for the “crisis in politics” we’re experiencing. And because of this, it is structurally and institutionally incapable of solving the issue at hand.

“By definition it’s remote from people, not close to people’s lives,” he continued. “It has always distrusted local government: taking funding out of local government, taking power out of local government, never trusting it with the job of improving its community – never giving them the tools to do that, to be honest. We have a weak local government because of Westminster’s distrust.

“We have a centralised political system that makes decisions for everywhere, and within it, it has a bias towards London. Is it any surprise that the decisions that come out of Westminster don’t resonate with Doncaster or Leigh or the north east?” asked the mayor, noting that the very seating structure of the Commons emphasises an extremely partisan and adversarial political game.

“So, what do we do about this? I think before us now, with the arrival of devolution in England, or the beginnings of it, we have the best chance that we’ll ever have of forging a new way of doing politics,” argued Burnham. “In my time in politics I became increasingly disillusioned with it; I found it frustrating that I couldn’t change Leigh in the way I wanted to, because I just didn’t have the direct ability and power to do that. We have a chance here with devolution. That’s brought excitement about the potential for new ways of working.

“But it’s not surprising that there’s been an early backlash against devolution when it looked like the old thinking, the old voices, and the old men in suits were shaping it. The Northern Powerhouse Conference that was held earlier this year in Manchester was very much the all-male line-up, and it looked like the Northern Powerhouse was for people in suits and ties talking about trains and shiny buildings – that’s how it looked to people.

“No wonder there was a backlash against it. If we’re going to run the old politics through new structures, they’re not going to work any better than the old structures, are they? It’s as simple as that, really.”

The mayor listed notorious examples of where centralised power pushed people away and created scepticism around devolution: Hillsborough, whose families “cried injustice for 20 years and nobody in Parliament really listened”; or the broader crisis around social care, where millions of people are affected but “Westminster has shown itself totally unable of rising to the challenge of solving it”.

“I get the strong sense, and it won’t surprise anyone here to say, that if people in Westminster and Whitehall can ignore people in the north, then they will do, and they do do,” Burnham added.

Four cornerstones for change

He argued there are four basic cornerstones that cities across the north need to implement to strengthen not only the idea of a ‘Northern People’s Powerhouse’, but to also ensure the “momentum behind devolution becomes unstoppable”.

For starters, gender-balanced representation must become paramount, with GM Combined Authority leading the way by mandating that every borough needs to be represented by both a man and a woman in all of the authority’s meetings.

He also stressed the critical importance of bolstering the public, not only by “opening the doors of this Powerhouse and letting people in” but also by giving them a real job to do once they are inside. Voices that aren’t heard equally in society need to have a seat at the table, a concept the GM mayor captained by asking young people for views on his manifesto and is now trying to bring to life with a ‘Youth Combined Authority’.

And once people are let in, they need to have something to do, he argued: “Don’t, under any circumstances, pay lip service to them or create token board that you just basically marginalise and then forget or rip up what they say.

“We have national UK Youth Parliament that have been at the House of Commons having a debate every year on a ‘Curriculum for Life’, as they call it, because they despair at the idea of schools becoming exam factories more and more. And the government’s done nothing with it.”

In his city region, Burnham is hoping to involve the public by asking young people to create a digital system where 16-18-year-olds can access work opportunities; tasking homelessness groups with writing a plan to end rough sleeping; and meeting businesses to consider how GM can become the UK’s leading digital city.

Lastly, the mayor said we must move away from the idea that constructing buildings is the same as building communities. He admitted that GM itself has become “too developer-led”, where the prevailing mentality is akin to ‘grab whatever you can, building something if it looks new, and that’ll be regeneration’.

“We’re not going to build a north that people want to live in if all the north is is decaying town centres surrounded by urban sprawl,” he stressed. “Let’s put pride into those places that voted Leave at the referendum last year. Revitalise those towns, put people at the heart of those places. That’s how we’ll start to really emerge as a Northern Powerhouse.

“The more we embrace [these ideas], the stronger we will be. The Powerhouse we build will be more durable, and the momentum behind devolution will become unstoppable. And it will show to Westminster that we’re not just calling it devolution for the sake of it, but we’re taking it to use it to do something very different, and start to change this country from the bottom up.”


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