A manifesto for Manchester

Andy Burnham has hit the ground running with an honest campaign around housing, although some of the ghosts of New Labour remain.

Steve Hanson
18 January 2017

A Manifesto for Manchester

Mayoral hustings in Stockport (pic Steve Hanson)

I went to one in a series of events designed to engage citizens in order to generate a manifesto on housing in Greater Manchester.

This was held in Stockport and was organised by the team of prospective Labour Mayor Andy Burnham. It is widely assumed that Burnham is approaching what a friend calls 'his Coronation', rather than his election. Nobody wanted a mayor, or specifically him, but here he is, the future perfect, the already written.

I watched Burnham on TV during the Labour Leadership campaign. Within five minutes he claimed he was very much his own man, and a total party man. Well, which is it? It surely can't be both. Because of that, I went to this event completely cynical, but I came out feeling more positive.

It didn't start well. We watched a brief film of Burnham before getting the real Burnham, to some light elevator music. It escalated, but not alarmingly, peaking safely before fading. This stuff rose up repeatedly at key points across the morning. I experienced visions of us all buried in a shallow pit, after our collective death by muzak.

Ian Munro of the New Charter Group spoke eloquently, but his microphone died during the extolling of devolution. It would be easy to turn this Alan Partridgesque beginning into a metaphor for the whole event, but that would be a mistake.

I felt the need to pinch myself after some of the statements: We have been heavily reliant on the private sector as leaders of the housing debate. Therefore, we 'get regeneration, rather than housing needs.' There were more questions than answers, of course. For instance, if the fantasy of a swelling Manchester draining London comes true, will the rent for those 'affordable homes' rocket? Will those homes come with long term security of tenure and reasonable rates?

To be fair, many of those questions were contingent on the controversial Spatial Framework for Greater Manchester, a joined-up planning document covering the ten districts of the city region, which currently only exist in draft form. We were told that the 'right mix' of housing in the Spatial Framework is not being encouraged at the moment. It is for larger private homes and large green sites close to roads. Burnham is for high density urban planning and integration with public transport.

Again, this was great to hear, but again, there were questions: So far this strategy has only existed at a public level in the form of the link up for global capital via HS2 and the sacrifices made by communities for this; the ultimate winners being shareholders. But here was a window opened on what devolution and a city region mayor might do.

Burnham is for 'air quality' and 'green spaces', but his plan to build on green belt land was released to the media as this event ran. There was a whiff of the all-things-to-all-people rhetoric of New Labour here, but something had changed. Burnham was honest about the fact that there is a crisis and wanted it sorted. That these things are to be celebrated at all illuminates the paucity of politics over the last twenty years, but something has shifted.

There is of course a tension between having green spaces to attract more people into Manchester, and that attraction, which is already happening. For Burnham 'high density urban is the way', but he suggested greening other spaces to pay for the ones that are built on. I am reporting on an ongoing conversation here, and some of it was extremely refreshing.

A claim was made that 'housing is too party political'. But hasn't the problem since the housing policies of the 1990s been that it isn't party political enough? By which I mean that the state takes far too little interest in it, under anyone's watch. The problem is that it is too deregulated.

There was a debate with another speaker around the idea that with the usual algorithm a magical 'trickle down' will come; but the other speaker didn't believe it, and Burnham seemed to agree with him, which was revelatory, although they have got to do something about it and that's the tricky bit.

But let us pause again to check the distance travelled: At this event a massive drive for social housing and the rectification of the horrifying homeless problem were unanimously agreed upon. The manifesto as it stood when we entered the room assumed that owner-occupier, private let or social housing were the only forms of dwelling in Britain. When we left, co-operative co-ownership was on the agenda: And it was an actual agenda, printed out in black and white, given to us all as we left the room.

If what was said that morning is carried out, we are in with a chance of some real reform in the Greater Manchester area. I have to pause to say this, as there were all sorts of bad hangovers still in the room, from the last era of British politics, and I will go on to criticise them. But even if revolution is not possible, reform might be, and this is something.

The general pitch was a wide Northern Powerhouse one, and many of the problems were locatable in the broadness. Burnham wants to 'give us a voice'. I thought we had one already. He wants a resurgent left. I thought we had a popular resurgent right. Burnham outlined the aim for a public transport system that is 'sustainable'. Surely one thing to say about public transport – against the wider context of consumption – is that it is always already fundamentally unsustainable. The immediate problem for humans is that it is not universally affordable, or in many cases reliable.

We heard about a 'Greater Manchester that leaves nobody behind'. This was Manchester as a city 'for everyone', all things for all people. This Panglossian rhetoric is meaningless when capital works when things are unequal, and then makes them more so. Emotive politics of this sort were detectable all morning, particularly a rhetoric of 'hope'. Hope is what desperate people do, nothing is ever solved and nobody is ever saved because they did some hoping.

We were told that we can all rest assured that 'a passionate debate' is taking place about the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework document. Will lots of passion make it work? Passion, like hope, we need less of. Burnham spoke of the need to provide a 'convincing' plan. Surely all we need is one that works? This was an interesting slip: 'Convincing people'; the rhetoric that led to the seething, toxic political gas cloud of 2016. 'Convincing people' ended in the firm conviction that every politician without distinction is a swivel-eyed reptile. 

The easy sentiment of Hillsborough was deployed by Ian Munro as a crowd pleaser. Burnham opened with a football line too, getting down with the ordinary folks. But we were sat in the Cheshire Suite in Edgeley Park football ground in Stockport. This detail seemed like a metaphor for the aspirational social agendas of New Labour: Cheshire, via downtrodden Edgeley.

The event music was written for a cheesy banking or insurance ad. It reeked of suburbia, with sentimental slow fades and partial blurring. The aesthetics of Burnham are very just so too: Think John Lewis employee. But I entered the room thinking Burnham was a lizard and left thinking he was a decent human being.

Burnham explained that housing policy has been London-centric for too long. On one hand, here was an exciting glimpse of the way in which devolution might work to develop a unique city-region that thumbs its nose to Whitehall. On the other hand, here was a politician's appeal to popular sentiment, rather than a real diagnosis: Neoconservatism is all over and it is global, it doesn't just exist in the South.

Burnham's example of how the north is different to the south seemed to be the failure of Westminster to bail out northern industries as 'those industries were leaving': They didn't just jump; they were pushed.

This then returns as he explains how 'technical education' has been 'failed' by a Westminster which is 'southern'. There is a norm here, a logical floor to what he is saying, that northerners do dirty jobs and southerners do desk jobs, like an old Mitchell and Kenyon film with bowler hats and flat caps. Surely the problem has been that Westminster isn't geographically-specific at all now, but universally, globally neoconservative. What should be rejected here, the thing that is being posited in the 'Northern Powerhouse', is the idea that we used to have technical education 'up here' and it has haemorrhaged – it has – and now we should have it back. This is a vision of northern proles for the pump house and the Eton elite for the brain.

However, the event was about housing, connected though all those things are. The main narratives revolved around the homeless crisis: Rent rises and benefit cuts and high bills for the state. But there was no suggestion that the fundamental system underlying all this be rendered a relic from a savage past.

Burnham spoke about 'good and bad landlords' as though they were a natural phenomena, like rotten fallen apples, as opposed to those still on the trees that are fresh to pick. The questions piled up in my head: Are you going to regulate and how can you do that? As part of a post-devolution city constitution?

This seemed like a crucial need, that Manchester becomes a fundamentally different state on these issues, one that innovates on these matters and enforces them, so that others may follow. Burnham then explained that he is for a voluntary regulation scheme for bad absentee landlords, which sounded little short of pointless.

I nearly died in a house fire in Manchester in 2014 due to a badly wired fuse box. The fire service clearly diagnosed the fault, but nobody, from Council to Ombudsman to Insurance Underwriter could pursue the estate agent and landlord. I was simply brushed under the carpet. It was nearly impossible to get a Solicitor to take it on, and when I did they were well beyond my financial means: the clear need for stronger regulation flared up in examples given all morning.

But let me just pause again and pull back. We were sat in a room with a senior politician who expressed grave concerns about the state of private rented housing. If we take the proposals on their very broad terms, this event was a real advance, not only in the Northern Powerhouse debate, but in terms of what we might expect from a British politician. Burnham was honest about his approval of the Spatial Framework document and a centralised city vision. It was highly unpopular in the room, but he stuck to his guns. He said that it was 'right to have a plan' and I agree. Respect is due.

The details were necessarily thin. Very specifically, someone needs to regulate in favour of longer-term letting. One of the big problems across the housing sector in Britain is short term lets, in terms of price increases and homelessness: But when we got to the breakout groups, we heard a lot of calls for more 'flexibility' in the housing market; different needs for different demographics. But all of this serves capitalist interests perfectly. There are Estate Agents in the Heaton Moor area who diagnose the situation as young people who 'prefer' flexible letting. This has to stop and stop now. Maybe it won't, but if it doesn't resentment will surely rise.

However, Burnham is clearly thinking about these local troubles and he is also thinking globally. But how much of a utopian local is going to be delivered after he has gone to speak to Deloitte? To China? Various tentacles of the sprawling Peel organisation have been handed large sums of money for BBC rent and £2m for obscure projects by Salford Council. So there is a wider concern about 'landlordism' and 'rent' here, that is directly related to housing. For instance, the large class divides in Salford between the Quays and other areas.

Burnham told us that 'inward investors' need 'to know that Manchester knows where it is going'. Manchester is going nowhere. It lies at Grid Reference SJ839982 and in the fifteen or so miles of radius around it. We should refuse the 'going somewhere' of growth and creaming, of surplus skimming. We need less ladders up and out, we need much richer horizontal patterns.

But what can actually be done about the neoliberal culture that was rejected by the outcome of the Brexit vote? It is a big ask for anyone. The problem for the First World on a cliff edge is that nobody really knows what the hell to do about it. 

Still, we must strike up a tune while Rome burns. There was a final space for questions and so I asked: “Can you write into the Spatial Framework document a guarantee that private companies with offshore tax arrangements won't be handed large sums of public money for housing?” 

Burnham grinned. “Do you have someone in mind?” he said. “I think you can guess”, I replied. He then responded by saying the £300m coming from central government for housing in Manchester is currently far too weighted towards private for-profit companies and that he was going to try to do something about that. 

Roll those words around your mouth and digest them. They taste good. I hope we won't need to regurgitate them, but if we do I recorded them.

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