Burnham Knows Best: Should The Government Pass The Baton To Local Authorities?

Cloe Heaton 

In the 2019 General Election campaign, Conservative candidate Boris Johnson made a commitment to ‘levelling up’ Britain’s regions, should he be elected. They for too long had been left behind the progress made in London and the South East. Johnson presented himself as the man to change this.

Johnson was therefore delivered to the office of Prime Minister on a promise to transform Britain’s neglected regions. Almost a year following this, the Prime Minster has had a public clash with one of our most prominent regional leaders, Manchester metropolitan mayor Andy Burnham.

Burnham presented a public challenge to the central government. He would not accept Greater Manchester being plunged into Tier 3 restrictions unless the government delivered adequate support for businesses.

Burnham was fighting for the legitimacy of regional governments in controlling their own affairs

In reference to Johnson’s campaign promises, he accused the government of not ‘levelling up, but levelling down.’ The dispute therefore appears simple. The government offered £60million in support. Burnham countered that this would only cover 66% of the costs of restrictions.

When more money was requested, the government refused, in order to not appear to favour Greater Manchester over other regions experiencing shutdowns.

Yet, the issue runs much deeper. Burnham was fighting for the legitimacy of regional governments in controlling their own affairs. He is a champion of the need for a redistribution of the power and leadership capacities of central and local government.

He is also a key figure in the defence of northern interests, never allowing the central government to forget that the North matters too.

For standing up for his region, Mayor Burnham was crowned the King of the North by many on twitter. He also registered a net positive approval rating, in contrast to Johnson’s falling poll approvals.

Yet despite his popular efforts, Burnham was ridiculed by ministers for ‘playing politics,’ in a way not appropriate during a pandemic. Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb suggested Burnham’s only option to ‘do the right thing by the people’ was to retreat and accept restrictions.

However, could the government be accused of playing politics with the North of England? The recent clash between a regional and the central government is not an isolated event. Politicians such as Burnham have been arguing such points for years.

Attempts to appease them have been made, with initiatives such as the northern powerhouse being promised by the central government and then prevented from reaching their full potential. While they were left unfulfilled, the gap in productivity between London and the North has been left to almost double since 2001.

No government could ever equally represent all regions better than their own local leaders could

It seems that regional leaders have had enough of receiving empty promises from central government. They are the ones in touch with their communities. This makes them best placed to articulate and present local needs.

No government could ever equally represent all regions better than their own local leaders could. Yet during the pandemic, local leaders have been easily overridden by politicians who rarely leave their Westminster offices.

Burnham’s anger is legitimate. The regions have been neglected for too long. As I am writing, a new situation is developing in Liverpool, that once again exposes the devastating geographical inequality in Britain.

It therefore may be time for the central government to swallow their pride and hand over some of their power to those who know their country best. Mayors and local leaders will not allow Johnson to forget the promises he made to those who elected him.

As The Article concluded, ‘Andy Burnham’s position gives him a megaphone and he is proving very effective at using it.’ This is unlikely to change any time soon.

Chloe Heaton 

Featured image courtesy of  The BMA via Flickr. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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