EXPERT COMMENT: New mayor needs to help Manchester's surrounding towns
As the Greater Manchester region elects its first ‘Metro Mayor’, Tom Arnold, a postgraduate researcher of New Economic Geographies, offers his take on the challenges and solutions facing Andy Burnham in his inaugural term.
Andy Burnham’s victory in the city-region’s first mayoral election was in part a result of his appeal to the ‘Metrolink towns’ – places like Rochdale, Ashton and Eccles that sit at the ends of Greater Manchester’s transport network. He received more Constituency Labour Party nominations from outside Manchester and Salford than his party rivals Tony Lloyd and Ivan Lewis, and during the election campaign emphasised the need to spread the prosperity of Manchester’s booming city centre to its outer towns.
Rhetorically at least, this marks a shift from the Manchester model of recent years, which has focused on driving investment, jobs and population into the urban core. There is increasing awareness that economic growth in the city centre has not ‘spilled over’ to many parts of the city region, despite improved connectivity.
Low pay and poor productivity, scourges of the UK economy since the 2008/09 recession, are evident in all ten Greater Manchester districts but particularly prominent in the Northern boroughs of Rochdale, Oldham and Wigan, and the idea of a more spatially inclusive economic model for Greater Manchester is gaining traction. Here are a few steps Mr Burnham could take to promote the outer reaches of our city-region.
Invest in Post-19 education
Unemployment in Greater Manchester, whilst above the national average, is not particularly high by historic standards. A bigger problem in many parts of the city-region is underemployment – residents in Oldham, Rochdale, Wigan, Bolton and Tameside are more likely to have jobs that are seasonal, temporary or part-time, and many have few prospects of progression.
Research shows the majority of those employed in sectors such as care, catering and retail have no or very few qualifications. The social and economic cost of people stuck in low-paid jobs, not fulfilling their potential, is significant. With the post-19 skills budget set to be fully devolved to Greater Manchester from 2018, the new Mayor should provide more opportunities for adults to upskill, retrain and progress to more secure work.
Improve orbital transport links
Despite extensions to the Metrolink over recent years, a surprisingly high percentage of Greater Manchester journeys are still done by road – almost 50% in total, with 41% by car. A key reason for the car’s continuing dominance is the poor public transport links between local authority areas. Despite 48% of commuting trips crossing council boundaries, the Metrolink is overly focused on bringing people into the city centre. Put simply, if you want to travel from Rochdale to Bury via Metrolink, you’ll need to go into Victoria Station then back out again.
The de-regulation of buses since the 1980s has led to chaotic and disorganised networks across England. In Greater Manchester, commuters in Bolton, Wigan and Salford see services cut, whilst the Wilmslow Road corridor – dubbed Europe’s busiest bus route – sees 60 buses an hour trundle down its narrow roads.
Using his newly devolved powers to re-regulate the bus network, the Mayor should prioritise links between M60 towns like Rochdale, Oldham and Bury. In the longer term, a Metrolink ‘Circle’ line running around the city-region would better reflect the jobs geography of Greater Manchester than the current city-centric network.
Develop a mix of new housing
The emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), a new and comprehensive plan to guide development across the city-region, proved controversial during the election campaign. The GMSF includes proposals to develop new housing on parts of the Green Belt, particularly in Stockport and Rochdale, and is opposed by well-organised local resident groups. Some candidates, including the Liberal Democrats’ Jane Brophy, pledged to scrap the plan, whilst Mr Burnham called for a “radical rewrite”.
The reality is that Greater Manchester needs to build at least 11,000 new homes a year to keep up with a rising population, and there aren’t enough brownfield sites alone to meet this need. City centre apartments will meet some of the demand, but there is a desperate need for more homes for families and first-time buyers in the places people most want to live. That means building out, as well as up.
Mr Burnham should resist the urge to cave in to political pressure, and embrace the GMSF as the best option to solve Greater Manchester’s looming housing shortage.
Re-energise the high street
Many town centres still haven’t recovered from the last recession. With dearly-loved brands like Woolworths and BHS departing, high streets are increasingly reliant on bargain stores and charity shops to drive footfall, and the retail-led regeneration which transformed many British towns through the 1990s and 2000s looks unlikely to be replicated.
The success of Altrincham’s Market Hall shows what can be achieved by a different model of regeneration. A decade ago, the town had rising levels of high street vacancies and was struggling to compete with the nearby Trafford Centre. Now, thanks to a dedicated team of local business leaders and backing from the local council, the Market Hall hosts local traders, street food and craft stalls, drawing in customers from across South Manchester.
Replicating Altrincham’s strategy won’t be possible for all towns – its position near some of Cheshire’s most affluent towns gives it a distinct advantage – but the Mayor should use his leverage to support local initiatives that improve town centre footfall, like Rochdale’s efforts to attract more small businesses.
Conclusion - Bridging the Divide
Last year’s EU Referendum laid bare the stark divide between the gleaming towers, professional jobs and street food markets of England’s largest city centres, and the smaller towns which surround them. In few places is this cleavage more apparent than Greater Manchester, where the jobs-heavy districts of Manchester, Stockport and Trafford had majority Remain votes, whilst the other seven boroughs voted to Leave.
Bridging these ‘Two Englands’ is a task not only for Westminster, but for our regional politicians. For Greater Manchester’s new mayor, Brexit should be a warning of what happens when the margins feel marginalised.