Are we all in this together? It doesn’t look like it from the regions | Andy Burnham | Opinion

Two weeks ago, I joined the eight other English regional mayors on a phone call with the prime minister. As a former mayor himself, Boris Johnson gets where we’re coming from. Over the best part of an hour, we had a friendly discussion about the release from lockdown and the need for the regions to be empowered to lead recovery within a national framework.

I took the opportunity to repeat a call for a safety-led approach to any release. But I also made a point of saying how important it was for us all to preserve a sense of national unity. We wanted to continue work in that way, but given the complexity of what lay ahead, that would mean being properly involved in what comes next.

When I listened to the PM make his announcement last Sunday – and observing the government’s behaviour this week – it has felt as though it had decided to do the polar opposite of what I was asking. Life has changed and, suddenly, everything feels very fractious.

In Greater Manchester, we had no real notice of the measures. On the eve of a new working week, the PM was on TV “actively encouraging” a return to work. Even though that would clearly put more cars on roads and people on trams, no one in government thought it important to tell the cities that would have to cope with that.

Far from a planned, safety-led approach, this looked like another exercise in Cummings chaos theory.

But it wasn’t just the lack of notice that was the problem. The surprisingly permissive package might well be right for the southeast, given the fall in cases there. But my gut feeling told me it was too soon for the north. Certainly, the abrupt dropping of the clear “stay at home” message felt premature.

If the government had taken us through their reasoning, perhaps we could have been reassured. But this brings me to a recurrent problem throughout the crisis. The mayor of London is on Cobra, and rightly so. But there is no place for any mayors from the north, or indeed the rest, of England.

For a government elected on votes in the north, and promises to “level-up”, it is surprising how quickly it has reverted to the default, London-centric mode in this crisis. Last Sunday’s package certainly felt more suited to the south than to the north.

And the same pattern continued into the week. On Thursday, a £1.6bn funding package was agreed for Transport for London. I don’t have a problem with that. But where was the deal for Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham?

Like London’s Tube, our tram system has seen an increase in passengers this week. But we are running a skeleton, 20-minute service and are not even fully funded to do that. If you are encouraging a return to work, surely any safety-led approach would require you to help cities fund extra trams to allow for social distancing? Simply telling people to drive doesn’t work for the third of people here who don’t own a car.

It’s not just on transport where the government is not reading the room. At the start of the crisis, the message to councils was, “spend what you need to keep people safe, we will see you right”. Now it’s all about “sharing the cost”.

In the same week that the ONS identified the link between the virus and deprivation, the government removed deprivation weighting from the latest council allocations. Nine of the 10 Greater Manchester councils received hefty cuts. The change resulted in a huge shift of resources from north to south, with Knowsley getting a 39% cut and South Gloucestershire a 30% increase. Not so much “levelling-up” as doubling down on the north-south divide.

This matters because northern councils are seeing more cases and facing extra costs, not least on issues like homelessness. At the start of all this, the government rightly launched an “Everyone In” policy. We needed no persuading and already had a scheme in hand. However, a few weeks on, the goalposts were moved. When we said Everyone In, civil servants explained, we meant people who were homeless before the crisis, not those who have become homeless since.

We are now left with 800 people in hotels and apartments but with insufficient funding to help them make a transition to a more secure placement. The communities secretary insists he is fully funding “Everyone In” but our councils see it differently. The gap between national government and local government in England is growing wider by the day.

So where do we go from here?

If the government carries on in the same vein, expect to see an even greater fracturing of national unity. Different places will adopt their own messaging and policies. Nervousness in the north about the R number will see more councils adopt their own approach on schools, as Liverpool, Gateshead and Hartlepool are doing. Arguments will increase about funding. And if we don’t get the help we need, there is a risk of a second spike here which, in turn, will pass the infection back down the country through the Midlands to London.

Instead, the government needs to draw a line and show it is listening.

Tomorrow morning, it should ask the mayor of the West Midlands to represent the non-London mayors on Cobra and commit to publish the regional R number, as requested by myself and the mayor of the Liverpool city region. They should quickly follow that by agreeing a transport funding package for cities to put on more buses and trams so that people can travel more safely to work. And something that would win back huge goodwill across all of England would be a commitment to honouring the promise to cover all costs incurred by councils, including on homelessness.

We remain in the midst of a national crisis and we need a sense of national unity to get through it. We all need to work hard next week to bring that back.

Andy Burnham is mayor of Greater Manchester

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