Meeting the Mayor

Andy Burnham found time in his busy schedule to sit down with three children and answer their questions on knife crime, pollution and even hair care

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Oceana, Kizhar and Michelle are excited. They’re about to interview the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and although they’ve prepared questions on the subjects that matter most to them, the three Unity Community Primary pupils admit they’re nervous.

“It doesn’t feel real,” says Michelle as the three schoolchildren await Burnham’s arrival in his Manchester offices.

While they wait, the trio work out who should ask questions first. They decide the fairest way is for the eldest, Oceana, to take the lead, followed by year six classmate Kizhar, and then year five pupil Michelle.

When the mayor arrives, Youth Parliament member Kizhar extends a hand to him, and the questions commence.

Oceana: What proposals do you have in place to tackle homelessness and people who are begging on the streets of Manchester? 

Andy Burnham: It is a very big priority for me. I said when I became mayor that I wanted to end rough sleeping and I stand by it, because I don’t think anyone should be forced to sleep on the streets. Everyone deserves a bed, everyone deserves a warm place and something to eat. And we’ve got enough money in society to pay for that.

So the main thing I have done, to answer your question, is we have created something called A Bed Every Night. Across the 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester we’re opening places every night of the week to give people somewhere to go. So tonight, for instance, there’s about 370 people who are in the different places.

You might say: “Well, there’s still people on the street”, and the truth is there’s still a lot more people coming on the street than we’ve got places for, so it’s still a crisis. And I’m not going to say that I’ve solved it, but we’ve made a bit of progress. But I’m going to keep working until we really can give a bed every night to everybody.

In terms of begging on the street, well, sometimes people on the street might look like they’re homeless but not everybody is, and it’s important to say that, because I think sometimes people go out begging and they don’t help people who are homeless because they’re not really homeless. It’s a difficult thing, but it does happen, and the message is rather than necessarily giving money to people like that, buy Big Issue North, donate to a charity that’s helping people, sit and talk to people.

The best way to support people is to do those other things, because sometimes the people who are sitting there with a cup maybe are not going to use the money for good things.

Kizhar: How do you deal with the stress of being the mayor of Greater Manchester and do you ever regret going for the job?

Good question. It is stressful, and you are right that it is a busy job. How do I deal with it? I go running. I do a lot of running because I find it helps me deal with the stress. When you’re out running you just think about things in a slightly different way.

My kids are probably like you – they don’t like running and they think I’m mad. I like football too, but you’re thinking about the game a lot when you’re playing football, whereas when you go running you go into a different zone, and that helps me deal with the stress.

Do I regret it? No, actually, not at all. It’s a tough job, it’s a busy job, but I hope I’m making, in a small way, some differences, and that’s why people do jobs like this – to try and make things a bit better than they are. I get some grief at home from my kids sometimes. “We never see you – you’re never at home.” But then I’m doing things that I think are helping people also. I’m going to be standing for election again next year.

Michelle: We know you’re originally from Liverpool. Why did you not go for the role of Liverpool mayor and represent your home city? 

Oh my god, these are good questions! They’re tough questions. You’re right, I was born in Liverpool, which is not easy when you’re the mayor of Greater Manchester, because there’s a lot of rivalry, isn’t there?

I also support Everton, which again is not easy when they play Man City or Manchester United, but something people maybe don’t know about me is when I was one year old, my dad got a job in Manchester. My dad and my mum left Liverpool when I was one, and my dad came to work right here in Manchester city centre, and he worked in Manchester all my life.

I spent my life over here, even though I was born in Liverpool. So I had more connection growing up with probably Manchester than I did with Liverpool, although I do love both places. I love Liverpool and Manchester, and all of the North West.

I went to school and grew up in the Greater Manchester area. Another reason was that in 2001-2017 I was the member of parliament for Leigh, which is where I grew up, and that is a Greater Manchester constituency, so it was more natural for me to be mayor of Greater Manchester because I’d been working in Greater Manchester for 20 years before.

Oceana: Do you think it’s fair that some families have to use food banks, and some children only get hot meals at school and not at home because their parents don’t have enough money to feed their children and themselves?

No, 100 per cent not. I don’t think we should have food banks. I don’t think we should have homeless shelters, because we have enough money in our country to feed everybody every day, put a roof over every head, and actually give everybody a house. If we wanted to, there’s enough money to do it.

Sadly, sometimes we have governments that don’t prioritise that. They sometimes think about tax breaks for people who have already got a lot of money. When I was growing up I went to a Catholic school and was taught to love your neighbour as yourself, always look after people who have the least. We’re meant to live in a Christian country, aren’t we, so why do we leave people sleeping in the streets? Why do we leave kids without food after school or in the holidays?

I think sometimes politicians focus on people who have already got a lot. How about we focus on the people who haven’t got the basics? We need big changes in our country. There’s too much inequality. We’ve got a gap between the richest people and the poorest people and it’s massive, and it’s growing still.

Oceana: What strategies are in place to tackle pollution in Manchester, as it has been proven that north Manchester is the worst part of Manchester with a pollution problem, seeing more adults and children suffering health problems and dying at a younger age.

It’s true what you say – it’s the poorest kids in the poorest communities that breathe in the most polluted air. Sometimes they’re living close to main roads that have got lots of heavy traffic
on them, and it’s those roads that are the worst. The traffic is still, and all the stuff is coming out, and people open their front door and they’re breathing [it in]. It’s really wrong.

I remember back about 10-15 years ago we had a big debate about people smoking in buildings like this, and because you could see the cigarette smoke I think it made people realise it was causing harm. The trouble with traffic pollution is you can’t actually see it in the air, and therefore I think people maybe don’t understand how bad it is.

It’s not just damaging kids’ health in the long term. There is new research that shows that on any given day if the traffic pollution is really bad it can put people into hospital that day, if people have asthma, or older people who might have a heart attack or stroke.

So what’s our plan, you asked me. We’re developing it, it’s not in place yet, but by 2021 Greater Manchester will introduce a clean air zone and the current thinking is that will cover all 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester, and what it will mean is you cannot drive the most polluting vehicles – lorries, vans, buses, taxis – in that zone. So you have to switch. If you’re going to drive around Greater Manchester from that period onwards the vehicle would have to be electric, hybrid, or be a lower polluting vehicle, basically a newer vehicle. And if you do try and carry on driving in an older vehicle you’ll get fined quite a lot of money.

We’re also doing a lot of work on cycling and walking. We’re creating dedicated cycling lanes, so it’s not just a white line on the road and the traffic is right next to you – we’re trying to create cycle lanes where there’s a curve in the middle so it makes it safer. We’re going to introduce a bike hire scheme next year. We’re doing other things too, but that is the big plan we’re developing.

Oceana: How are you tackling the increase in knife crime in Manchester?

Yes, it’s very worrying. We had the incident at the Arndale centre recently. I think there is a real issue there definitely. Greater Manchester Police have been working hard to challenge it. The answer to the question is we’ve got more police coming onto the streets, we are recruiting more police this year.

The police are using something which is quite controversial. It’s called stop and search. So if they think people are carrying weapons they are then stopping them in the street and searching them. Now you’ve got to be careful about that, because sometimes people think people from certain communities or backgrounds or races are stopped more than others, and some people think that it’s discrimination. Sometimes it is and it’s not right, but when more people are have knives I think we do have to do more to stop people from carrying them.

The truth of the matter is, people of all ages, races and backgrounds are potentially carrying knives now, so we are using stop and search more, although we are doing it carefully. But I don’t think that will ever get you to a full answer. There are issues with young people not having enough positive things to do other than maybe be involved with gangs or other things. So one of the other things I’ve done is introduce Our Pass – a free bus pass for all 16-18 year olds in Greater Manchester. But it’s more than that – it’s also linked to free tickets for sports events, theatres and all kinds of different things. We’re trying to give young people in Greater Manchester more positive things to do so that they don’t get involved in negative things in their community.

Oceana: Why did you quit the job of health secretary?

I didn’t quit – I got thrown out by the public, because there was a general election.

Kizhar: Your job must keep you extremely busy. How many hours do you put in a day as the mayor and how many hours of sleep do you get?

I would say on average my working day would be about 11-12 hours. Yesterday I left home at 9am and I got back at 9pm, and that would be quite typical. It’s busy. I try and get a good night’s sleep, so I try and get eight hours but it doesn’t always work that way, sometimes seven, sometimes six. It’s a challenging job, definitely, and I do work quite long hours and I do work weekends as well. But I’m not asking for any sympathy because I signed up for it, no one forced me to become mayor of Greater Manchester, and also I get well paid. I do work hard. There are long hours but there’s a lot to do. I’m in charge of the transport, policing, a whole range of things that people need to function for them. So, yeah, it’s a busy job but a good one.

Michelle: You’re turning 50 in January. Are you doing anything special?

Thank you for reminding me about that! That’s a good question. I’m trying to get a club in Manchester with a couple of DJs and have a big party. When it’s 50 you’ve got to do something, haven’t you?

Michelle: How are you going to celebrate Christmas?

As I usually do – at home. I’m going to be cooking this year, which is a bit worrying.

Kizhar: Who does your hair in the morning?

Does my hair?! Does it look like someone does it? Well, I do it, is the answer to that. Everyone thinks I dye it, but if you look close enough there are some greys in there. I don’t dye it, just for the record. All through my life as a politician people have said two things about me: number one, why do you dye your hair, and number two, why do you wear mascara? Now, can you see mascara on there? So, I can confirm to Big Issue North I do not dye my hair, and I do not wear mascara. When I used to go on Question Time people used to send pictures of Bambi, and when you’re trying to be a big serious politician and people send pictures of Bambi on social media, it’s not really that great. The other thing they do is send pictures of Thunderbirds, because my features make me look like a Thunderbird puppet. The trouble is when you’re a politician people comment on your appearance all the time – “Why is your hair like this, do you dye your hair, are you wearing fake tan?” It’s just life.

Photos: Danny Mendieta

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