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Connecting the North: anger, optimism, and no answers

Written by Emma Wilson

Senior Account Executive

Last week, I attended the Devo Question Time: Connecting the North panel event at Manchester Town Hall. When faced with the invitation, I have to say my initial reaction was one of reluctance as I am experiencing devolution-fatigue, but I hoped it would surprise me and clearly others in the audience thought similarly: the venue was fully-booked, with many people having to stand at the back.

Host Gill Morris led the event and directed questions to a panel of Northern experts and politicians consisting of: Neil McInroy, Chief Executive of Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES); Donna Hall, Chief Executive of Wigan Council; Dr Jon Lamonte, Chief Executive of Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) and Chair of the Urban Transport Group; and two of the candidates for Greater Manchester Metro Mayor: Labour’s Andy Burnham, MP for Leigh; and Conservative Councillor Sean Anstee, Leader of Trafford Council.

Neil McInroy brought a refreshing perspective to the discussion, suggesting unconventional solutions and focussing on future-proofing. He stated that transport strategy shouldn’t follow an economic model, but rather be ahead of it. Exactly how this could be done was not explored though.

The other two non-politicians on the panel offered more practical insights to devolution. Dr Lamonte highlighted the obstacles faced by those wishing to access public transport, and stressed that the biggest issue facing Greater Manchester and the North was funding and the how this will be managed in the future.

Ms Hall on the other hand drew attention to the positive social and human effects that devolution could have, highlighting that poor transport is currently one of the biggest barriers to employment. She also shared her biggest hope for the North’s future: “inclusive growth” that considers homelessness, health and social care, and connections to deprived communities.

Of course, Devo Question Time was also another stage for two prominent Greater Manchester Mayoral candidates to spar. Although Andy Burnham and Sean Anstee dominated the dialogue for most of the evening the debate was disappointingly well-tempered, with both agreeing on more issues than not, particularly on subjects such as public transport, reducing congestion and curbing air pollution.

However, there were some differences with Burnham’s message focussing on young people in Greater Manchester and Sean Anstee remaining optimistic and ambitious about the region’s future under the current Conservative Government.

One briefly tense point was on the issue of the GM Spatial Framework, an ambitious strategy by the ten GM local authorities that sets out planning and infrastructure strategy up to 2035. Burnham railed against the published draft document, calling for a radical rewrite and adding that the framework would cause unsustainable congestion. Anstee however defended it, emphasising that it was only a draft and was vital for growth.

Throughout the evening, the panel tried to capitalise on the apparent public shift towards populism. Burnham talked about “getting angry” with inequality between the North and London, emphasising that this could not be fixed by “the same old politics”. Anstee also disparaged Westminster’s “paralysis”, claiming that it “has failed Manchester for generations”. Elsewhere, McInroy called for a “progressive populism” to counter the reactionary brand that the world is seeing in the wake of Brexit and the election of President Trump, whilst Donna Hall stressed that there was a need to go back to “basic values”. But, just as the ‘old politics’ tends to do, there was little detail about what ‘new politics’ or ‘basic values’ actually look like.

Devo Question Time highlighted the challenges facing the new GM Mayor on their first day in office, but offered little indication of how to go about tackling them. I left the event with some of the anger and optimism which was peppered into the debate, but sadly I am still unsure how these issues can be tackled.  

Remarkable Engagement, Devolution, question time, transport