New Year message from Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester:
It feels good to have finally put 2022 behind us. But will 2023 be any better?
It’s a gloomy question for a New Year’s Day. But it needs asking. As things stand, it’s entirely possible that the chaos of last year will only intensify in the early months of this.
So what to do about it? There's only one real answer: make a resolution to work harder in 2023 on finding common ground and solutions.
That’s the spirit in which I will be asking my team in Greater Manchester to go into this New Year and I hope other decision-makers in public and private sectors will do the same. The bottom line is this: the country needs fewer arguments and more agreements in 2023.
There are some grounds for hope. We are working to agree a new devolution deal with the Government by the end of January and are encouraged by the positive conversations we’ve had so far with Ministers. The risk is it won’t feel like progress if other issues continue to go unresolved.
On public sector pay, I see a brief window in the next week or so to move beyond the entrenched positions of 2022 and set a new tone for the year. I beseech the Government to use it.
It is simply not tenable for them to refuse to discuss pay in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis with workers who devote their lives to the service of others and have seen their pay fall in real-terms over the last decade. To deny they have a point is to devalue their vocation. It is disrespectful to them and dangerous for us all.
That said, I understand Ministers’ concern about the long-term affordability of any agreements, given the exceptional nature of this financial year. This points to an obvious solution: a one-off payment to get lower and middle earners to inflation this year followed by the establishment of an expanded and more independent pay review process, agreed with the unions, for 23/24 onwards.
Some people will claim it’s easy for me to say this; it’s the Government that’s got to find the money. But that’s not true. I have responsibility for firefighter pay in Greater Manchester and am prepared to find a local contribution towards any one-off payment - as long as the Government recognises the need for more national support for fire and rescue services to fund fairer pay for firefighters going forward. My point is at least let’s start talking properly about solutions.
The other issue on which we need a new approach is the railways.
The North of England simply cannot afford another year of train chaos. The situation must be gripped quickly or the damage to the regional economy will become hard to reverse. First, the Government should decouple unpopular demands from pay negotiations, such as removing guards from trains, and allow the industry to do a deal. Second, they should give Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express no later than the end of January to get services back up to an acceptable standard or strip the contracts. In my view, First Group have already forfeited the right to run these crucial services and I would have acted before now. But we can't go beyond this month without a clear resolution.
If we can make progress quickly on these issues, then 2023 can indeed be better than 2022.
Later this year, parts of Greater Manchester will be the first in 37 years to see buses go back under public control and the rest will follow shortly after. Within two years, we will have fully integrated buses and trams in a single system: the Bee Network. With the right level of help from the Government, it could be the most visible act of levelling up in the North of England achieved in this Parliament. If we can agree the inclusion of commuter rail lines, as part of our devolution negotiations, then the Government will be on the way to fulfilling its pledge to create London-style public transport across England by 2030.
Other exciting possibilities arise from Greater Manchester’s devolution asks. Improving housing conditions will continue to be a big theme in 2023 and our proposal for a Greater Manchester Good Landlord Charter, underpinned by regulatory powers, could drive up standards in the social and private-rented sectors. Our plan to create the UK’s first integrated technical education system, with the new T-Levels at its heart, could provide the beginnings of a solution to the skill shortage that is a growing risk to the economy.
On transport, housing and skills, Greater Manchester is ready to work with the Government to create template solutions to long-standing issues that could be applied across all of England. This is how the devolution of power out of Westminster and into the English regions is starting to change the national policy debate. It’s a bright light in an otherwise gloomy scene and a rare point of cross-party agreement in divided times. It has the ability to energise people at a local level, create a sense of optimism and get the regional economy moving. We should make the most of it in 2023.
So there are things to be positive about and there is more we can all do to change the course of the year ahead. Given the position the country is in, it is incumbent on us all to give it a proper go.
Happy New Year everyone.
Article Published: 01/01/2023 10:30 AM