Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said credit union and co-operative values had a role to play in rebalancing an “overcentralised” political system that has left the north of England neglected.
This could include a role for credit unions in providing young people with financial education as part of a “curriculum for life”, he said. They could also work with local authorities to provide new financial services to help care leavers and homeless people enter work and find accommodation.
A special guest speaker at the annual conference of the Association of British Credit Unions (Abcul) in Manchester, Mr Burnham said he was well placed to put these ideas into place because “this is a great city for co-operative heritage. It’s a proud tradition in Manchester”.
He spoke of his frustration during his time in Westminster. “It’s an overcentralised system and within that bubble the London view of life predominates. This explains why there’s a feeling that politics hasn’t worked.”
This failure of politics lies behind the huge number of rough sleepers on the streets of Manchester, Mr Burnham told delegates.
“It’s an unbelievable state of affairs that we have a humanitarian crisis on our own streets but there doesn’t seem to be any urgency in Westminster,” he said. “There needs to be a drastic change to the way politics works.”
He said he wanted to create “a Manchester where no person is left behind – I want to see inclusive growth”.
Mr Burnham said young people had been neglected by politics, prompting him to launch the Greater Manchester Youth Combined Authority.
“The biggest request they have made is a curriculum for life ,” he said.
“Financial advice is a big part of that and I’ll be coming to our credit unions and asking if you can help provide that education they are asking for.
“In the 1980s, jobs were secure and housing was secure. Now there are hundreds of thousands of people in insecure work and they are in private rented accommodation – a lethal combination… The biggest cause of rough sleeping is eviction from private rent.”
And he told the conference: “Credit unions have a big part to play – we want to do more at the Manchester level to help our credit unions do more.
“We want to help young people, particularly care leavers. We’re looking at a care leavers guarantee, where we can give care leavers here a guarantee of a home and a job, and our credit union partners could help us with that.”
Credit unions could also help the authority assist private tenants struggling with the transfer to universal credit, said Mr Burnham.
“It’s going to leave people waiting weeks for their money and it doesn’t take more than one or two weeks for their finances to fall into downward spiral. We want to develop a scheme that will help people.
“We will ask the DWP to give us names of people who are waiting for sanctions so we can get better at homeless prevention. We want to set up a centre for people given a section 21 from private landlords, so they go to a hostel instead of the street. And credit unions could help us rebuild their situation and their transition back to work.”
When a representative of Hoot credit union in Bolton spoke of their concern for members who would be affected by Universal Credit, Mr Burnham said he wanted to see the DWP budget devolved from Westminster.
He told the questioner: “If we had that budget here I guarantee we would spend it better. Local authorities are closer to those people and would do a much better job. We have a pilot scheme in Manchester, which is working well, a programme for the long-term sick. Already we’re showing better results than the DWP. They all get a key worker and they are given access to mental health support.”
He added that his authority had a “huge agenda round financial inclusion and we want to work with our credit unions”.
“Payroll giving to credit unions should be part of what pubic sector employers do,” he said. “They should set a lead that this is good practice, and then we can ask private sector to follow suit.”
With Brexit taking up all the energy of politicians at Westminster and politics becoming more volatile, Mr Burnham said: “Devolution is the only way. We can work together, have everyone involved with drawing up the policy.
“This is the home of community self help with the co-operative movement. I think more social change will come from people taking inspiration from what happens in Manchester.”
He said the city was about to host a green summit to set a date for carbon neutrality in Manchester and to tackle plastics pollution, and called for a “convention of the north” where the regions could call for a better deal with one voice.
Asked by Co-op News after his speech how the relationship between the devolved government and credit unions might work, Mr Burnham said: “We’re thinking very carefully about how we support people with the cost of housing, people in insecure work. We have a Greater Manchester Good Employers Charter being developed at the moment and that could include credit unions in terms of employers signposting people to credit unions, so we’ve got a huge amount of thinking underway. We haven’t come to any firm proposals yet but we are open to those kinds of solutions.”