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Andy Burnham: 'Housing is a human right'

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham is sick of watching the UK lumbering from crisis to crisis. He tells The Big Issue why we must move past the culture wars towards a position of prevention

Photo: Max Kent

It’s fitting that the office where Andy Burnham makes the big decisions as the Mayor of Greater Manchester is in a building currently covered in scaffolding. Manchester has become known as a city of regeneration, reinvigoration and reinvention in recent decades and Burnham has certainly played his part during his six years as mayor.

One of eight Labour-controlled regional mayors in England alongside, most notably, Liverpool’s Steve Rotheram and London’s Sadiq Khan, Burnham and his brethren have brought their own fresh thinking, coming up with progressive solutions sometimes at odds with Westminster.

When The Big Issue rocks up to meet Burnham in his office, the ink is barely dry on the latest one: his big, bold plan to tackle the private rented sector, which he unveiled in a speech at the Housing 2023 conference taking place in the city.

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Burnham announced the creation of a good landlord charter, setting out a pathway for landlords to be accredited. For rogue landlords who don’t engage, Greater Manchester local authorities will look to buy homes off them through compulsory purchase orders before turning them into social housing.

“It’s absolutely what we should do,” Burnham tells The Big Issue. “They can’t just sit there with people in homes that are not fit for human habitation just raking in that money and doing nothing about it. That’s over.”

The former Leigh MP’s renting plans are part of a bigger political philosophy he’s building in Manchester. Secure housing as a human right is at the foundation of that philosophy.

To find out where that thinking started, you must head to where many a political leader has gone in the past decade: to the Finnish.

“I started using the phrase housing is a human right, when I’d come back from Finland,” says Burnham.

“I was doing a lot of work on street homelessness when I first got elected and really delved deeply into the issue. Finland kept coming back, so I went there. This was a game-changer for me.

“People kept talking about Housing First and I kind of thought it was a project. But it actually came over to me when I was there that housing first is a national philosophy in Finland. 

“I remember sitting in this very room, at times just feeling desperate and almost hopeless. I mean, where have we landed as a society?” Photo: Max Kent

“The recognition that education won’t work if you’ve not got a housing first philosophy or the health service will be forever on the backfoot because health is primarily created in homes. It really changed my thinking. 

“If people talk about prevention, if you want a true prevention policy for the country, you give everybody a good, secure home. So it’s not an unrealistic policy, I think it’s a very realistic policy and I’m really committed to it.”

The introduction of a government-backed Housing First pilot in Manchester and Burnham’s A Bed Every Night (ABEN) scheme has seen Finland-esque inroads into street homelessness. The number of rough sleepers on Manchester’s streets fell to 37 people in May from a peak of 61 last September with 572 people supported with a place to stay through ABEN.

Andy Burnham promised to end rough sleeping when he became mayor – no small task in the current housing crisis and economic climate – but he has no regrets about sticking his neck out.

Prince William, too, has set out with a big target of ending homelessness and his Homewards programme has also cited Finland as the benchmark.

In the Manchester mayor’s opinion, anything that boosts the political will on the issue is a good thing.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve done as much as I feel I can possibly do in the context of the national policy climate that I have to work in. I don’t set interest rates, I don’t set benefit rates, I just have to soak up the failures of what goes on down there,” says Burnham.

“But within that, if I’m in a position to say to anybody out there today that they can come in if they want to, that’s as close as I feel I can get. I always felt when I said it and we were working towards it: you’ve made a big promise to people who really need you to deliver on it. It would be the wrong thing to say I shouldn’t have done it because it might embarrass me.

“It felt right to me to just say, ‘No, we make a big promise, and we get as far as we possibly can towards it’. That’s how I felt, and I feel Prince William is doing something slightly similar, which is brave to a degree. It’s easy to knock things these days, so credit where it’s due. It’s not a PR thing, they are doing it with massive intent.”

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham speaks at the Convention of the North at the Central Convention Centre in Manchester, Britain, 25 January 2023. Image: ADAM VAUGHAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The next building block of Burnham’s political philosophy focuses on income. As mayor, Burnham has set the goal of Greater Manchester becoming the first city-region to pay all employees a real living wage. But Burnham wants to go wider and voiced his support for a universal basic income – a move that would inevitably put him on a collision course with the ruling Conservatives.

Burnham penned a “trailblazing” devolution deal with the government in March but has maintained a stance of opposition against Westminster that has earned him the moniker of ‘King of the North’. 

The Tories have not been keen on UBI trials in devolved areas – the basic income trial in Wales stops short at supporting care leavers due to the terms of its devolution deal.

But a basic income is the future, Burnham says, suggesting that it could even take the shape of including a guarantee of good housing alongside monetary payments.

“It’s that learning journey I’ve been on, about setting people up to succeed. In a world where things have become so insecure, the case for it gets ever stronger,” he says.

“I go back to the pandemic, I remember sitting in this very room, at times just feeling desperate and almost hopeless. This sense of: where have we got to when care workers, Unison found, were saying they couldn’t stop working if they were ill because they don’t get sick pay? I mean, where have we landed as a society?

“Why have we got a mental health epidemic in this country? It’s because people are living day to day, week to week. And they’re worrying over pretty much every aspect of their life. They are living in fear of eviction because they live in a home in the barely regulated, private rented sector. That’s where we’ve landed in 2023 and the pandemic shone an unforgiving spotlight on that. 

“It really did make me despair about where we’ve got to, and it just shows the resilience of the community and the country is shot to pieces isn’t it? Because people do not have firm foundations beneath them.”

Of course, it’s easy to pipe up with progressive ideas when you’re not in power and the only test of whether Burnham’s preventative paradise could happen would be if he was in the hot seat.

But what else is holding back solutions to stop us lurching from crisis to crisis and sticking plaster solutions? The culture wars’ pollution of public debate, for one.

“We’ve got to get away from the absolutely appalling public debate in this country that’s often driven by the right-wing tabloids and the right-wing press,” says Burnham. “I used to see all these debates in Westminster: ‘We’ve got to be tough on benefits, because we want The Mail‘s support on the election’. This is where that type of culture in Westminster actually lands you as a country.

“They say, ‘You take a policy like UBI and then vilify it for the 10% who won’t succeed or won’t play by the rules’. Why? It’s the other way around, isn’t it? What are the benefits of having the majority of the people in the country set up to succeed?

“What’s the savings of the police, the criminal justice system, the mental health system and the NHS? You’ve got to have a country, I think, that’s built for resilience, prevention, good lives. It’s a different way of thinking and a different way of running things.”

That focus on prevention is one that is shared by The Big Issue and founder Lord Bird.

The Big Issue’s Big Futures campaign is calling for decent and affordable homes for all and an end to low wages and investment in young people.

Andy Burnham has previously sold The Big Issue twice and is due to try his hand at being a vendor for a third time soon. It’s an experience that has stayed with him.

“I learned a lot,” he says. “It’s a street level insight into the world of people and it could be any of us, couldn’t it? Because of the way life is nowadays. I always say this: I think we’re all just a couple of bits of bad luck away from being there and I think putting yourself in the shoes, even just for an hour, of somebody in that position is largely affirming.

“The Big Issue has been around a long time, hasn’t it? It’s a part of British culture.”

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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