A wall of angry protesters greeted Andy Burnham when he arrived at hustings in Salford for the Greater Manchester mayoral elections earlier this month. One grey faced homeless man had pitched a tent outside St Philip’s chapel and was sitting in a sleeping bag next to a sign bemoaning “the worst housing crisis since the second world war”.
Much of the media coverage around the inaugural mayoral elections in English city regions on Thursday has focused on how few voters know these polls are taking place – with even fewer giving a stuff that they will soon be able to choose their own Sadiq Khan/Boris Johnson/Bill de Blasio (delete according to your own political prejudices).
But in Greater Manchester, where the mayor will arguably have more power than his or her London counterpart, interest in the campaign is being boosted by a problem which existed mostly in the shadows when Burnham, the hot favourite, last won an election. That was just two years ago, when the one-time health secretary was re-elected as the Labour MP for Leigh in Wigan with a 14,096 majority – before he tried and failed to become Labour leader and suddenly discovered a zeal for devolution and local politics.
These days, residents in the Northern Quarter, Manchester’s nightlife district, have become used to stepping over a homeless person when they leave their flats, though it never gets any easier. Shoppers in the less ritzy streets of Wigan and Rochdale know there will be a beggar at every cash machine. Want to visit Bundobust, an Indian tapas joint in Piccadilly Gardens that Jay Rayner raved about in the Observer? Prepare to run the gauntlet of zombies high on a very different kind of Spice: even in broad daylight half the square seems to be off their heads on the horribly addictive, formerly legal high.
Jane Brophy, the Liberal Democrat candidate, says transport is one of the top three issues raised on the doorstep, along with concerns about leaving the EU (though only three of the 10 boroughs voted Remain) and controversial plans to house the 300,000 new residents expected in Greater Manchester over the next 20 years by building on vast swathes of greenbelt. She wants to invest some of the region’s health budget into cycling and walking, to cut air pollution and encourage healthy lifestyles.
Both she and Burnham say they currently wouldn’t commute into Manchester by bike at the moment because it’s not safe. Brophy wants to copy London’s bike hire scheme – “Brophy bikes, I’ll call them” – and, like Burnham, wants to invest in more segregated cycle lanes. He recently collated figures showing show almost 3,000 cyclists were killed or injured on the region’s roads in the last five years.
All the candidates were relieved when their election wasn’t postponed by a month, to coincide with the general election, even if it would mean a higher turnout. Burnham in particular does not want his campaign to be overshadowed by the mess his party is in nationally: his 12-page manifesto makes no reference to Jeremy Corbyn at all.
He insists a strong mayor can challenge the “dysfunctionality of the Westminster system” which he sees as the root of the “political crisis” currently engulfing Britain as we head towards an EU exit and contemplate a breakup of the United Kingdom. Greater Manchester has been at the heart of radical change many times before, he notes in his manifesto, so why not again?
First Burnham has got to win – then he must face high expectations that he will be able to sort out the region’s woes without central government help. On Tuesday, when he was heading down to London to give his last Westminster speech about the blood contamination scandal, dozens of homeless people stormed the roof of a building next to Manchester’s busy Oxford Road station in a protest about the city’s housing shortage, closing the surrounding roads. If he doesn’t get a grip of the problem quickly, he is going to have a lot more protests to deal with: and this time he will be the bogeyman on the banners.