Interview: Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester Mayor

The metro mayor talks exclusively to Planning on negotiating infrastructure funding with central government, housing numbers and development corporations

Andy Burnham at MIPIM last week
Andy Burnham at MIPIM last week

Senior politicians were relatively thin on the ground at last week's Mipim, the international property fair held in Cannes, France. Tumultuous events in Westminster no doubt kept ministers in London, and London mayor Sadiq Khan is yet to follow the precedent set by his predecessors by promoting the capital on the Riviera.

However, one group of politicians that was well-represented at the event was the new breed of English city-regional mayors. The Liverpool city-region's Steve Rotheram, the West Midlands' Andy Street, the West of England's Tim Bowles and Greater Manchester's Andy Burnham all attended.

Khan is widely thought to have been deterred from visiting by concern about being seen to court property chiefs at a time of increasing Labour party suspicion of the industry. So when Planning interviewed Burnham at the event, the reasons for his attendance seemed an obvious place to start.

He said that he had received some criticism in Manchester for coming. "But you have to just take that on the chin, because it's the right place to be at," he said. "Particularly now, with the country projecting an uncertain image nationally, I think it's crucial that cities like ours are out here".

Burnham's challenges at home extend beyond any flak arising from his trip to Cannes. Civil servants have told him that promised central government funding to support housing growth in Greater Manchester is at risk because the numbers in its draft city-regional plan are too low.

Last year, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) signed an outline housing deal with the government in which it pledged to build 227,000 homes by 2035, a rate of 11,360 per year, in return for £68 million of infrastructure funding.

However, the revised draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), published in January, set out a target of just 10,580 homes per year, seven per cent lower than the housing deal target.

At the time, both GMCA and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) officials told Planning that they were still committed to the deal in principle. But commentators raised doubts about its survival.

Burnham said that in private civil servants have warned him that the deal could be in jeopardy. "They are saying to me that the numbers are way too low, and therefore the housing deal might be in question," he said.

The mayor last month accused housing minister Kit Malthouse of "dishonest" exaggeration of the flexibility that planning authorities have to vary the housing numbers produced by the government's standard method.

At Mipim Burnham said he had sought a meeting with the minister to clarify matters, but a date had yet to be fixed. "We are being told something very different in private by the ministers' civil servants to what we are hearing [from the minister] in public," he said. "I don't know if the minister is overriding his civil servants - that's why we need clarification". He said he was seeking a continued conversation with government to help him to reassure local stakeholders that the housing deal funding was safe.

He said that the authority was caught between local Tory opposition to the growth agenda, which the minister's comments had fuelled, and central government determination to drive higher numbers. "On the one hand, we have got Conservative councillors and MPs complaining about the current numbers in the GMSF and the impact it then has on greenfield development," he said. "On the other, we have got ministers holding us to ransom, saying unless we build a much higher figure we won't get any money to clean up our brownfield land. That isn't an acceptable state of affairs".

The draft GMSF states that its housing target was calculated in accordance with the government's standard method of assessing housing need. On that basis, Burnham questioned the government's rationale for seeking higher figures. "Where does the number in the housing deal come from?" he said. "Surely the deal has got to be based on their own methodology? What is the sense in forcing people to build above need? That is a recipe for controversy at local level."

In response to the suggestion that the government was expecting additional housing delivery in return for the additional housing deal funding, the mayor said: "I don't think that is an appropriate way of using public funding. If you dance to a political tune, you get funding. If you don't, you won't. I think that's what gets Westminster a bad name. The important thing is to get the growth under way, get some confidence, and get some certainty".

One tool that the mayor is using in a bid to drive growth is mayoral development corporations (MDCs). The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has announced plans to consult on establishing an MDC for Stockport town centre.

The authority said it believes Stockport’s Town Centre West site could be developed as a "new urban village" of up to 3,000 homes alongside other uses and infrastructure.

According to a GMCA report, the development corporation would oversee land assembly, master planning, site preparation and infrastructure delivery and attempt to secure government support and private sector investment.

The GMCA said the corporation would mark the first time mayoral powers have been used to regenerate a town centre.

Burnham says the corporation was very much a "bottom-up" initiative, deriving from the council. "They feel that you need a vehicle to bring public and private stakeholders together," he said.

However, the vehicle will not be taking on planning powers, which will remain with the council. Burnham accepts that this means that the corporation is partly a branding exercise. "There's an element of that," he said. "But that's not a bad thing. There are real powers, but some of it is a vehicle to bring people together, and provide status, prestige and profile, and there's nothing wrong with that".

More such corporations could be on the way. Burnham said that another Greater Manchester council had already lodged a bid with him for an MDC.

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