Andy Burnham interview

Greater Manchester's first elected mayor is setting
out to end rough sleeping

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Greater Manchester’s newly elected mayor Andy Burnham came into Big Issue North’s offices in his first week in power to talk about his agenda for homelessness, young people and mental health – and his support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour manifesto. He has pledged 15 per cent of his salary to a newly created mayoral homelessness fund and urged local people and businesses to follow suit. It had hit tens of thousands in its first week.

Big Issue North: When were your eyes first opened to the severity of homelessness in Greater Manchester?
Andy Burnham: I’ve been a Greater Manchester MP for the last 16 years and for the last four or five years I’ve been patron of a charity in Leigh called Compassion in Action. I used to see people around the doorway of Leigh and would chat to them, but it was when I fully became involved with the charity that I really began to understand how serious homelessness was. I found out about people living in tents in parts of my constituency – I had no idea that they were there – and started then to really engage seriously with how complex it is and with the serious issues driving the increase. Our borough, Wigan, had seen the biggest increase in rough sleeping in the last year – an exponential increase – and it was that that really moved me from being concerned to engaged.

What stories did you hear when you met rough sleepers on your first day in office?
When you engage it teaches you not to jump to simplistic solutions. There’s a multitude of reasons that put people in that position but, of course, there are some common threads: young people – particularly those who have been in the care of the state. Without critical help in their late teens or early twenties when they’ve been through care, the challenges that brings in terms of vulnerabilities they have is a major part of this.

The dysfunctional housing market is a common theme – the lack of appropriate accommodation for people. The actions of unscrupulous landlords is another common theme. And the worsening position with the cuts in austerity generally. It feels that all the organisations are pulling in their horns a bit and, as they do that, gaps appears in the safety net that used to be there in all communities. People then fall through those gaps in increasing numbers.

Is it seen as a priority as it should be?
No. I gave quite an angry speech to the House of Commons in January for the Homelessness Reduction Bill. It was the first time I can remember Parliament debating rough sleeping and homelessness for years. Everyone was patting themselves on the back and it was good that the bill was going through but it wasn’t in any way connected, in my view, to the scale of the problem. The prime minister says she wants a country that works for everyone. Well, walk around the streets of Greater Manchester and you’ll find out that it doesn’t under her watch. For me, homelessness is the clearest symptom of austerity that has gone way too far. It is a massive political issue, yet is doesn’t feature in any way like it should in the political debate.

What troubles me is how quickly people will – with encouragement from the right wing press – lean to a judgmental position and buy into a narrative that it’s all self-inflicted – that people put themselves there by some kind of choice or weakness. It’s an easy narrative because people can then emotionally distance themselves from the issue and I think that’s a very insidious thing…. All of us are a couple of bad bits of misfortune away from homelessness. Life is so precarious these days that there but for the grace of God go any of us.

The homelessness fund needs to be deployed flexibly, quickly and without bureaucracy to package together local solutions

How do you envisage the money raised by the mayoral homelessness fund will be divided across Greater Manchester and what exactly will it be spent on?
The immediate priority will be to end rough sleeping. I know that people might say that sounds like a grand, unachievable goal, but what I mean by that is that people have the option to go somewhere, if they want to, in any part of Greater Manchester. For me, the fund needs to be deployed flexibly, quickly and without bureaucracy to package together local solutions – patching together offers of buildings and volunteers. It’ll be that bit of funding that brings everyone together and creates a local solution. In no way do I want to supersede what’s already going on – it should be putting wind in their sails and not taking money from them or giving them new priorities that override what they’re doing. It’s all about taking what’s already going on in Greater Manchester and giving them more so that they can close the gaps and fill the holes in the safety net.

How will you be working alongside the existing Manchester Homelessness Charter?
The obvious thing is to take what’s been happening in Manchester and make it Greater Manchester-wide. I think more broadly as mayor, where one borough is doing something well, try and make it Greater Manchester-wide. And whether that means the same people operating on a bigger footprint or having the same system replicated in other boroughs it doesn’t matter. I’m open minded – but that’s what I want to do. I’m not pulling strings at all. It should be grassroots-driven not top down-driven.

Could that include emergency payments directly to homeless people in crisis?
I think we should have the goal of ending rough sleeping. I don’t think we should accept that people have no choice but to be outside. We should be able, in this day and age, to give everybody a warm bed at night everywhere. I know we can do that. I’d like that to be the clear priority that we set but beyond that I’m open minded about what the money is used for. I’m not setting any criteria. When we come to formulate the fund properly the one thing I don’t want to do is become hidebound by process.

I gave my last MP’s pay increases to Compassion in Action. They would send me a monthly breakdown of what the money was spent on and it was the best thing I received in the postbag. It was really heartwarming to read that they’d bought a new interview suit and shoes for someone, for example. That then took me into this realm of saying that I’d carry on doing that but using my new office to do it in a more structured way.

How will the Homelessness Action Network you have set up prioritise individuals who need help and what are the challenges in doing so?
The aim I would want the network to have is the goal of maximising the number of people it helped, but sometimes individual support will be needed. I’ve been out with the charity Coffee for Craig and have seen occasions where they take individual decisions because somebody is at risk and they need to be removed from that environment. That is important because when somebody is in that situation sometimes money needs to be spent to get them out of it and give them a respite. It’s a mixture – more generally, you want it to benefit as many people as you can manage but that’s for the judgement of those who disperse the funds.

You’ve appointed Salford mayor Paul Dennett to rewrite the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework and given him the portfolio for housing, planning and homelessness. Can you detail your plans?
I’ve been a Greater Manchester MP for a long time and if I look back to that period of the late 1990s/early 2000s before the Commonwealth there was a massive effort to galvanise the economy of Greater Manchester – building impressive buildings and making statements to the rest of the country about who we were and where we were going and making them feel that there was a revival underway. I understand how that drove change. It took Greater Manchester from a place that people didn’t think was going anywhere to a place that was always going somewhere and I think it played a part in taking us to where we are now by building a case for devolution. It was important but somewhere along the path towards that we got a bit too focused on flagship regeneration and not focused enough on communities and people and truly building places which respect the people who already live here. It seems to me that we got into a habit of building homes for people who might come to live here rather than people who were already here. I was feeling for a long time that Greater Manchester housing needed to be refocused on truly affordable housing in all 10 boroughs, not just the city centre, because if you don’t solve housing across the area you can get homelessness in the city centre anyway.

I hear what people say about excessive gentrification and decided that there needs to be a new focus. I’m not against some of the flagship developments because it sends a statement and it builds the economy of the city but it can’t be done exclusively. We let those which have been set in train finish but now the focus needs to be on truly affordable housing. By that I mean council housing and social housing. Paul Dennett, the city mayor of Salford, is the person who has spoken most powerfully on these issues and that’s why I’ve chose him to lead on them for Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

Manchester City Council leader Richard Leese has said it is difficult to enforce Section 106 planning obligations on developers, demanding that they include affordable housing in their developments, because they would walk away. How will you approach overcoming such difficulties as mayor?
They remain questions for individual councils because they would do the individual planning application. It’s my job to set a broader framework. We now have the Greater Manchester Housing Fund under the mayor for the combined authority… I would want to use the leverage that we would have there to work with responsible developers that will honour obligations to affordable housing. We’ll use whatever leverage we can. More broadly, I want a shift towards higher density development, particularly in the outlying town centres of Greater Manchester. Rather than building luxury and then grudgingly putting a small number of affordable units in, have more affordable development in the first place, making it easier to meet the obligations which developers have.

You’ve called upon the region’s property sector to donate the use of empty buildings. What are the practical challenges faced in this approach?
There are liabilities and pitfalls, but for me – and maybe this is something I’ll ask the Homelessness Action Network – we could take on those risks for them. If they’re temporarily going to let us take on a building, can we temporarily relieve them of those liabilities so that if there is a problem, it falls upon us and not them? That would be a good thing for us to do – why should they have ongoing liability? If they make a goodwill gesture, they shouldn’t then be hit if something happens which was beyond their immediate control. We need to work through those kinds of technicalities but I think if we could come up with such a scheme then that would be a good deal for all concerned.

Gary Neville embodies a lot of Manchester for me in that you get on in life but you give back

What did you make of Gary Neville donating the use of the former Stock Exchange building to the homeless before conversion into a hotel?
I was quite inspired by what he did. He embodies a lot of Manchester for me in that you get on in life but you give back. He almost established the principles of how something like this should be done. It’s not for us, as a statutory sector, to ask how we can do it in a way that really works for everybody. It’s about taking it to the next phase. We need a network that comes in and fills these gaps which have been created and that it’s done in a structured, understood and professional way.

Prevention of homelessness is better than cure. What, for you, lies at the heart of the matter?
The main answer to your question is about life chances and giving young and hope and help to get on in life. Something has happened in the last 10-20 years where we’ve erected a lot of barriers in front of young people. As I’ve gone around in the mayoral campaign, what you realise is there are many young people here who are essentially trapped in their communities. They don’t really leave and they don’t really have a sense that there’s much there for them. The messages they’re getting are not good and I think they’ve got increasingly lower aspirations than they would’ve had five or 10 years ago. For me, it’s about hope for people – what are we going to do to help people make the most of themselves and get on in life? That’s why I’ve put a very big priority on young people.

It might sound simple, but we’re committing to a free bus pass for 16-18 years olds as a statement to say: “We will help you.” They finish school and we’ll help them move from where they are to the next crucial stage of their life. We’ve also announced a scheme whereby if young people go through university here to work for the NHS in Greater Manchester, we will pay off their tuition fees. Helping them get on in life is part of the answer.

The other part of the answer is the health service finally realising that we’re not living in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st, when mental health, because of the insecurity and stress of modern living is now a much higher demand than it was in the 20th century, when physical health dominated the agenda. Three things: young people, mental health being more of a priority and a change in housing.

What is your vision for Manchester’s streets in 2020?
No more places of danger for anybody. We walked about last Monday morning and you realise how dangerous they are for people when everyone has gone home. There’s a lot more young people out there now. So first and foremost, for it to be safer for everybody and happier. There’s a lot of misery and unhappiness and people who are in situations where they’re feeling trapped and unable to break out of it…

Greater Manchester has more and more rough sleeping and homelessness. It’s the precise opposite of the image we would want. I would want this place to give off a different impression – one of a place that looks after people, that is safe and doesn’t allow anybody to be in a position where they may be abused in any way or treated as a second class citizen in any way, shape or form. This should be a place where everybody is equal and has somewhere to go to – everyone has got a roof over their head. That’s what everyone wants for Greater Manchester.

I didn’t hesitate when I set the target of ending rough sleeping by 2020 because I sense there is natural generosity here and the will – if you tap into this and ask people they will do it, I think. It’s the nature of the place and the people. They don’t just walk on by. The great thing about devolution is that for the first time, probably ever, the values of Mancunians can really shine through it – that is, we do it like this now. Not like how you’re doing it in Westminster; we’re going to do it this way. That’s what I hope. It could fix politics. It’s a big “if” but it could – it could connect people in a different way in making a difference.

The Westminster system that I worked in all those years lost the ability to come up with big solutions

Do you feel the Labour manifesto is going to make a difference to your ability to do the job?
I’m genuinely encouraged by it. I sat down with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell just before I left Parliament and my advice to them was: “Go very, very big and make it an election about policy. Out-trump them with the scale of your policies.” That’s what I think the public want. Young people are just waiting for somebody to come along and give them a real solution on university finance. Older people are waiting for a real solution on social care. Everyone else wants answers on the real living wage and workplace security. For me, the party that becomes big on policy in a world that’s clearly not working for everyone could well surprise the clever clogs, London-centric pundits.

We’ve had this frustration working in Westminster for some time with what they call retail politics. People were actually glorying in the phrase – it was celebrated as being a good thing that you brought politics down to very simplistic pledges, but that has got us into such great problems. The Westminster system that I worked in all those years lost the ability to come up with big solutions. I tried to reform social care as health secretary but it fell foul of that world where you can’t dare suggest anything that might be presentationally challenging. I was really starting to fall out of love with the place in a really big way at that time, with Hillsborough and other things. I thought: “What is this place all about? What are they about? What do they live to do?” Many of them live to play the game. That’s the way they see it: “We were top of the six o’clock news.” Not: “We’ve got a real plan for social care.” I really fell out of love with it over a period of time because I understood that there are a lot of people within both Parliament and the civil service who are not interested in real change.

The Greater Manchester and North West media is largely fair when it covers what you’re doing

And now it’s Manchester’s chance to combine health and social care.
When I weighed things up that was one of the compelling attractions. Even without more money coming in through any new source such as tax, if you spent the money – and got rid of some of the very disreputable home care companies and actually started channeling all the money for vulnerable older people through a single pot commission system where you pilot new ways of helping them in their own home – you can achieve so much more for people. Just get rid of the silos and the privatisation and start spending the money in a very preventative way. We’ve got the chance to do that – there’s nothing in our way to stop us doing that in Greater Manchester and I’m really confident.

More social change for the better is going to come in the next decade by people being inspired by what we’re about to do here rather than taking inspiration from policy documents… When I walked into the combined authority last Monday – and I’m not saying this because they’re necessarily politically aligned to me – it’s more that we’re all aligned for Greater Manchester. There’s buy in straight away. We’re all on the same page. If I walked into a government department, half of them were suspicious, so that’s the kind of thing which makes progress hard in Westminster. Whereas here, everyone’s positive and wants to help you.

The other real positive is that there’s largely a fair media. The Greater Manchester and North West media is largely fair when it covers what you’re doing. In Westminster, the minute you come up with a new policy they just want to pull it to pieces. It’s hard – you lose heart with it yourself when it’s getting riddled through with bullets by the Murdoch media.

Are you content that there’s a system of accountability for you as mayor?
That is a good point. That should be strengthened if we can find a way of strengthening it. I am proposing to do a mayoral question time in every borough once a year where anyone can turn up. We’ve talked about an e-petition system in the same way that there’s an e-petition in Westminster. If enough people sign the petition you get a debate. The obvious example is the greenbelt issue in Manchester. If enough people sign a petition and trigger a threshold – that’s something I’m thinking about. On the other hand I got a direct mandate in the election but I’ve got to face the public again in three years’ time. They’ve put me on a pretty short leash so I’m conscious that I’ve got three years to do the things I’ve said I’m going to do and if they don’t like it they can put someone else on.

We did pick up in the campaign that some people registered to vote who had never voted before because of some of the things I’d said. I want to thank them and say how humbling I found that – that will never leave me. I’d like to thank everyone who voted for me and who’s dontated to the fund so far. It’s amazing to see those offers coming in. I knew they would but it’s amazing when you see it taking shape and people coming forward.

To all of your vendors, I only want to help. This isn’t encouraging people to donate to my fund rather than buying a Big Issue North. Message to the people of Greater Manchester: buy Big Issue North. Carry on helping the other charities that you help but see if you can find a bit extra for my fund as well because it will be structured support across Greater Manchester.

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