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Burnham identifies skills and schools as key devo tests for Whitehall

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Greater Manchester CA mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) has used an LGC interview to set out a series of ”tests” upon which ministers’ commitment to devolution to his city should be judged.

Chief among these is ministerial support to ensure Greater Manchester receives the devolution over skills it has been promised, a power transfer which Mr Burnham said was threatened by Whitehall seeking to “rewrite the devolution agreement”.

The Greater Manchester mayor said other tests for the government included whether it would permit further devolution over welfare spending and schools policy – but he insisted he was personally focused on proving his capability using his existing powers.

Mr Burnham also used his LGC interview at the People’s Powerhouse conference in Doncaster last week to: 

  • Stress his commitment to support other metro mayors; 
  • Say he will prioritise using compulsory purchase powers to spur development ahead of any new levies or taxes on business or the public;  
  • Demand “no barriers” in the conversation about extremism following on from the Manchester Arena bomb; 
  • Reiterate his commitment to open politics, with those affected by homelessness and digital economy workers being asked to write reports which he hoped to use as a basis for policy making.

On devolution, Mr Burnham said he was “picking up encouraging noises from the government”, including a “revitalised commitment to the Northern Powerhouse concept”, with the new minister responsible for this, Jake Berry, “reaching out and wanting to build the dialogue again”.

While Mr Burnham detected “a lot of goodwill around”, including from communities secretary Sajid Javid, he suggested there was no guarantee Whitehall would not revert to its former centralist mind set. The success or otherwise of Greater Manchester’s bids for a homelessness funding, and for control of railway stations, as well as the government honouring the devolution of skills were key “tests” in determining this.

“I gather there are some question marks about the adult skills budget and some moves within government to rewrite the devolution agreement on that,” Mr Burnham said. “I can tell you now for certain that Greater Manchester will absolutely resist any attempt to change the terms of that deal.

“I’m grateful for them reaching out in our direction but these will be the tests. Will they carry on giving Greater Manchester more ability to build our economy and communities or is Whitehall going back into old mode?”

A combined authority paper from 30 June gave more details on the threat to devolution of the £70m adult education budget. Officials had been informed the devolution, which had already experienced delays stemming from a review of the machinery of government following last year’s EU referendum, could not begin before this year’s summer parliamentary recess, which “brings into question the whole timeline for fully devolved budgets in 2018-19”.

Additionally, in his interview Mr Burnham said whether the government funded the east-west Northern Powerhouse Rail project “for me defines whether or not they are committed to the Northern Powerhouse”.

He also said he sought a greater ability to input over schools and welfare policy.

On the former issue, he noted that while he had a role in early years and 16-19 education, “it just doesn’t make any sense” that he could not influence “the bit in between”. While he wasn’t seeking to take over academies and free schools, “more of an abillty to set a Greater Manchester vision for 0-19 would make a great deal of sense”.

On welfare, Mr Burnham said he would use powers sought from the Department of Work & Pensions to “move away from the tick-box and sanctions regime” and give greater roles to the community and voluntary sector, as well as implement social prescribing. “I’m sure we can spend the money better than the DWP spends it,” he said.

Mr Burnham continued: “Of course I’ve got my eyes on things we want more of from the government but our first job is to make a success of what we’ve got. My main focus to begin with is not to start raising taxes on people in Greater Manchester – be that through any form of congestion charge or levies on business – it’s to use the powers I’ve got such as compulsory purchase powers.”

Compulsory purchase could be used by a mayoral development corporation to spur development in areas “developers have not been prepared to go to before”.

Asked about his promise to “open up politics”, Mr Burnham said he had been inspired by Wigan MBC chief executive Donna Hall, “one of the most inspirational public servants I’ve ever had the privilege to work with”, to overcome the local public sector and community groups’ mutual distrust of each another.

“With the digital sector last week, I said ‘let’s have a plan to get us to be the UK’s leading digital city. Go away and write it, while we’ll have an input into it, if it’s a good plan we’ll back it’.” A similar principle will be followed in Greater Manchester’s work with the homeless and will be followed with its work with young people, the mayor said.

Burnham on…

Working with other mayors

“It’s not about us telling other places how to do it but if we can help other places then we will,” Mr Burnham said. He and Liverpool City Region CA mayor Steve Rotheram (Lab) “meet and talk regularly” because “there is a north-west powerhouse to be built here”. He met West Midlands CA mayor Andy Street (Con) at this month’s Local Government Association conference and is due to meet 40 mayors from Europe and the Americas in New York this week.

Sajid Javid’s attack on councils at the LGA conference

“I’m not sure on reflection that he or the government would consider that a well-judged speech, given what local government has been through in the last seven years and given what we’ve all been dealing with after recent events. It seems to me that a lecture wasn’t appropriate.”

Health and care

The Greater Manchester health and social care partnership will shortly publish its mental health plan. “There will be more money spent on mental health, a bigger focus on children, who are currently the forgotten part of the system.” Integrated care organisations are at the centre of Mr Burnham’s plans. “If some services need to be provided on a GM footprint because they’re more specialist that’s fine.”

Community cohesion after the Manchester Arena attack

“We aren’t at a position at the moment to say this is what we learnt and everyone else should do it. We are still coming to terms with what happened and the enormity of it.” A commission has been set up under the leadership of Bury MBC leader Rishi Shori (Lab) and Oldham MBC leader Jean Stretton (Lab) “about extremism and resetting the conversation around it”. “If there is a lesson, the first is that the conversation about extremism needs to have no barriers place in front of it.”


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