Andy Burnham: Manchester mayor on devolution, climate change and co-ops

In an interview with Co-op News, Mr Burnham says the co-op sector could feed into the devolved region’s plans to build a new economy and go carbon neutral

After his keynote speech to Co-op Congress in June, Co-op News caught up with Greater Manchester’s Labour/Co-op mayor Andy Burnham to discuss the role of co-ops in his plans for the devolved region, and the work of the Co-operative Commission he has set up. With a new industrial strategy and an ambition to make the city region carbon-neutral by 2038, Mr Burnham wants co-ops to help drive the economic transition…

There have been cases of local authorities selling off valued public land and assets. Will the Co-operative Commission consider common ownership of such assets to protect them and use them in a way that adds social value?

Certainly. That’s a logical thing to do rather than having a public body sell straight to the private sector. To protect the future use of the land you might consider a community co-op. That would be an idea I would be keen to hear from the Commission on, because there is work on the way to identify land across Greater Manchester that is publicly owned that might be released for housing development.

But I think it’s important not to make the mistakes of the past, like with the right to buy – when you are trying to have a big effort to build, to have new policies, but then you find you are having the same problem 10 years down the line where you’ve not got the control over the new properties that you build. And you’ve not got that social ethos. So certainly, that’s an idea we can look at.

We’re also exploring options for town centre regeneration, particularly through the Town Centre Challenge, where we are working with our 10 councils to identify towns where we can come in and hopefully stimulate a different town centre economy – perhaps more residential with more cafés, bars or restaurants. As part of that, we could create co-op and community spaces. Prestwich has a co-op there [Village Greens Community shop]. You see this more and more – co-ops using redundant retail space – but it’s whether or not we can factor that into some of our thinking around our Town Centre Challenge.

We launched the first Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC) in Stockport to lead the regeneration of the Town Centre West. It will be interesting to see how we might ensure that the co-op sector is represented in terms of the decision making and the thinking about the regeneration of the town centre, because it’s important in terms of building in that sustainability and that sense of new community – which might not be there if you simply leave it to the private sector.

Lewisham and Bromley councils supported Lewisham Credit Union with grants to give interest-free loans to people facing eviction. Would you consider a similar homelessness prevention scheme?

We’ve looked at that with regards to universal credit, recognising there is this gap of four to six weeks before people receive their money. We haven’t yet come up with any viable proposal but I’m still interested to see whether we could have a small-scale scheme of that kind.

Related: Andy Burnham asks co-ops to help create a new economy in Greater Manchester

Of course, the Homelessness Reduction Act is now a law and it requires public bodies to take actions to mitigate risks of homelessness, and I think stop-gap funding, to help people between the point where they are eligible for universal credit and the moment when they get the money, is something we need to continue to look at. It could prevent the spiral into debt that can happen if people are left waiting three or four weeks for their money.

Is there a need to redefine affordability?

Yes. Paul Dennet, the city mayor of Salford, was very keen that we develop our own Greater Manchester definition of affordability linked to the real labour market here, as opposed to the national or London market. We have set the set the target of delivering 50,000 truly affordable homes – according to the Greater Manchester definition on affordability. Work is ongoing on that but we want to link it to real wages and the regional economy, so that’s our commitment.

Can planning processes leave room for heat and energy efficiency co-ops to help you meet the 2038 low-carbon target?

This is a big deal, because you need a plan that accelerates progress in the next five years, and it’s going to require the whole society to change, not just councils. It has to involve everybody thinking about different ways of working and doing things.

There is an opportunity for co-op renewable energy schemes, possibly solar and ground pumps. But what 2038 means is that all ideas have to be on the table and all parts of society have to think how they could help. The key question for me is: can you do that while helping people bring down their energy bills? And how can you create new ways of financing that will allow people to borrow and to invest in these projects that then can be repaid back?

We want these ideas brought to us and we’re hoping to get funding from the government. And my message for co-ops is to get ready – there is an opportunity and the co-op sector might be better placed than others.

I also think there are opportunities in transport. We’re looking at clean air zones. We would want to create incentives for electric vehicles. You’ve got taxi companies that are going to have to acquire new vehicles because we want to move to much cleaner taxis that operate at consistent standards. And it might be that we encourage co-ops of taxi drivers to help people to borrow to buy these vehicles.

There’s change coming through the climate imperative that might break things up and allow opportunities for new ownership models to emerge.We all love what the co-op movement stands for. It’s specifics that are right for that moment in time – finding that right spot that is going to be the key.

More broadly, I would make an appeal through for the co-op movement to become quite full-throated in support for more devolution across the country, both in terms of more powers for a city like ours, but also to fill in the gaps around the country. What we are beginning to feel is that when you have power held at this regional level, bottom-up change becomes much more doable. Whitehall is too far from the ground to stimulate co-op ownership and development.

If everywhere starts getting devolution, you create the conditions for much more bottom-up change –more capability at our level to borrow, to support new forms and new sectors of the economy. The 21st century is going to be driven more bottom-up, is going to be led by cities and that can be hand in hand with the co-operative movement.