Everything that happened at the Greater Manchester mayoral hustings
Reporter: Charlotte Green
Date published: 30 April 2021
Current Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham
Clashes over scrutiny of Greater Manchester Police, the so-called ‘congestion tax for the region and how to improve buses – here is everything that happened at yesterday's (Thursday) mayoral hustings.
In an, at times, fractious hour long debate, four of the nine candidates standing in the Greater Manchester mayoral elections answered questions on the hot topics ahead of the impending mayoral election.
Conservative candidate Laura Evans, Labour candidate and incumbent Andy Burnham, Green Party candidate Melanie Horrocks and Simon Lepori for the Liberal Democrats are all hoping to get the support of voters for the top job on May 6.
Improving GMP and making it more accountable
Arguably the most heated part of the hustings was during the debate on how to improve Greater Manchester Police, and the scrutiny of its operation.
In December last year, GMP was placed into special measures by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services after inspectors expressed ‘serious cause for concern’.
The then-chief constable of GMP Ian Hopkins resigned, subsequently revealed to be at the behest of Mr Burnham following the HMICFRS report.
While Mr Burnham said that he had already been improving the force since 2017 his political opponents in the Lib Dems and Tory party said it was riddled with ‘toxicity’.
Mr Bunrham said he had inherited a ‘severely weakened’ police force in 2017.
“I have been improving Greater Manchester Police by repairing the damage to the frontline – that had to be done,” he added.
“I have called out the culture following the HMIC report, and that has been festering for too long basically, for a long, long time.
"And I’m the first person to do that.”
He added he had appointed Stephen Watson as the new GMP chief constable based on his record of improving culture and ethics while serving in South Yorkshire.
“I believe I have chosen the right person to lead GMP forward but particularly to change the culture from the defensive culture and an excuses culture at times on the front line, to a culture of positive open accountable victim centred policing,” Mr Burnham said.
“Greater Manchester Police would be in a dreadful position today if that decision hadn’t been taken [to raise council tax].”
Mr Lepori said there was an issue of culture and transparency within GMP that he compared to the Stafford Hospital scandal.
“There is a culture problem within our leadership of actually dealing with internal complaints,” he added.
“We know there is rumour upon rumour of corruption, of sexual abuse, of sexual harassment, of bullying, the list is as long as your arm.
“When someone sticks their head above the parapet they’re being bullied out of the force, they’re being forced to retire early or they’re moving to another force and never reporting the problem in the first place.
“That is the toxic culture that I’m talking about.”
Tory candidate Laura Evans said the problem was not the number of officers on the streets, but leadership.
“It won’t make any difference if you have constant reports being given by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate saying that you’ve failed on leadership,” she told her Labour opposition.
“It’s a constant barrage that you’ve not managed to get the job done. You’re failed to make the streets safe in Greater Manchester.
“Ian Hopkins was kept on because he was doing such a great job and yet now you’ve thrown him under the bus, it’s everybody but you.”
The 80,000 potential unrecorded crimes highlight by the police inspectorate report was a ‘massive issue’ for the region, Ms Evans said.
She pledged that she would commission a report into GMP and form a taskforce which would speak to whistle-blowers.
However, Mr Burnham challenged Ms Evans on her understanding of the inspectorate report and urged her to acknowledge the impact of national Conservative government cuts to policing.
He said: “You clearly haven’t read the HMIC report because 80,000 that’s not a figure of actual crimes, it was saying if you see the same performance as we’ve seen between April and June there could be 80,000.
“So you’re clearly playing politics, you’re not actually reading this stuff.
“The criticism of leadership was aimed at the leadership of the police. I don’t run Greater Manchester Police – I don’t tell them what to do, who to investigate, where to go.”
Ms Evans hit back that he was presenting a ‘list of excuses’.
“You don’t seem to understand – the role that you had was to keep people safe in Greater Manchester,” she said.
“There will be more incidences that come every year, and if you can’t manage to show leadership already then I don’t think you’re going to show leadership moving forward.
“And I think you should look at yourself and say it’s might fault and you should throw yourself under the bus.”
Mr Burnham later said that he considered this remark ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unacceptable’.
Both Ms Evans and the Lib Dem candidate Simon Lepori (pictured below) also criticised Mr Burnham for not making public a report into GMP carried out by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers ahead of the election.
“We know it’s not going to be good, just get it out there and lets talk about it openly,” Mr Lepori said. “Because it looks like you’re covering something up holding that back.”
Ms Evans added: “The fact is at the end of the day the scrutiny is not there, I even think you’ve had the audacity to put it in your manifesto – more scrutiny – but actually we see you sitting on another report."
Mr Burnham said the report was being portrayed as ‘something it quite frankly isn’t’ and was designed as an ‘internal exercise’ to support the incoming chief constable.
He said he was ‘open’ to publishing it, but added that would be after Mr Watson had taken up post, at his request.
“I believe I have appointed the best person to lead GMP and I am not going to undermine him day one in this job and I don’t think any of you should either,” Mr Burnham said.
Due to connection issues Ms Horrocks the Green Party candidate was unable to take part in this section of the hustings.
The clean air zone and the so-called ‘congestion tax’
Local authorities across the UK have been mandated by the government to introduce charging Clean Air Zones to combat illegal levels of air pollution in the shortest possible time.
Vans, buses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles and lorries that do not meet emission standards would have to pay a daily charge to drive in the city-region under the plans.
If approved, the Clean Air Zone would be the largest of its kind in England when it comes into effect in spring 2022.
However, it is another contentious issue in this year’s mayoral elections, with several candidates slamming it as a ‘congestion tax’ or charge.
The candidates were asked how small businesses could afford to upgrade their vehicles to avoid the planned clean air zone charge.
Tory candidate Ms Evans said they had argued until ‘blue in the face’ that it was effectively a new congestion tax.
“A small van driver will end up paying £300 a year. I think it’s an absolute stick as opposed to a carrot,” she added.
“It’s absolutely right that we should get businesses to move over, and we know we have got targets already set that we have to have electric cars.
“But the way to do it is not to cane something like 75,000 businesses.
“There are other things that we could have done which were a lot more positive and would have made a huge amount of difference without such a draconian measure.”
She was also critical of the number of electric charging points in the region, saying it was less than the London borough of Wandsworth.
Lib Dem candidate Mr Lepori said that from his career in the health and social care sector he had encountered numerous people with underlying respiratory conditions that could be caused by poor air quality.
“It is one of our epidemics here in Greater Manchester and we have to get a grip on it,” he said.
“Laura talks about having a smaller zone but that won’t actually deal with the air quality problems.
"You’ll still have the problems in the outer boroughs if you limit it down to a smaller area.
“Do I agree with congestion charging? No.
"I don’t think in the long term it actually works.
“Do I believe in a clean air zone that gets vans and lorries and business vehicles to convert so they don’t have to pay a charge – better yes, but I would have asked the government to put in place an effective grant package to actually aid all those businesses to upgrade their vehicles which hasn’t been done to great effect.”
Ms Horrocks (pictured below), the Green party candidate added she believed it was right to ‘aim high’ with a large clean air zone.
“I wouldn’t like to be the one to go and speak to people outside of a significantly smaller zone to say, really sorry I don’t think the air that your children are breathing in counts,” she added.
“I don’t think we’re in a position where we should just be focusing on business cars, I think we need to go back to public transport and revolutionising that.
“We need to put in real alternatives quickly to allow people to use much more environmentally friendly means of travel and we need to focus on that.
“As mayor we need to be a loud advocate back for Westminster to say you can’t ask us to reach a target without telling what the target is, how we’re meant to get there and how people are going to be compensated for the losses they’re going to face. We need to bring everyone with us.”
Mr Burnham said the government was imposing the clean air requirements on them, and argued the ball was in the government’s court to support businesses change their vehicles to greener alternatives.
“The government is imposing something on us but not giving us the support for people to switch their vehicles,” he added.
“And that is a problem, and we are arguing with the government and standing up to them to get enough money in the clean taxi fund in the clean van fund
“If the end the government make us do it without giving us the funding I will consider delays and exemptions because I do not want to see a single job or a single business lost because of cleaning up the air in Greater Manchester, and that’s the approach that I’m taking.”
However, both Mr Burnham and Mr Lepori called out the ‘misleading’ campaign material around the implementation of a London-style congestion charge in the region which would affect all vehicles.
“It’s not a congestion charge because once they’ve switched there is no ongoing charge,” Mr Burnham added.
“And yet it has been plastered all over Greater Manchester in a campaign based on a lie straight out of the Trump handbook and it needs to be called out and I am calling it out right here.
“People should have to have this kind of desperate misleading politics in a mayoral debate like this and it shouldn’t be used when the conservative government have said the direct opposite in the House of Commons.”
Mr Lepori added they had to be ‘honest with the public’ that it was not a congestion tax.
How to improve Greater Manchester’s bus network
Plans to franchise the bus network in the region and bring it back under public control have been at the forefront of the last years of Andy Burnham’s mayoralty.
It’s a policy not opposed by the Green Party or Liberal Democrat candidate, both of whom are advocating for an integrated system where people can use buses, trams, trains and bicycles interchangeably.
Ms Horrocks said: “The buses need to be improved insofar as they need to run to places that people need them to go to.
“It is impossible for me to get on a bus where I live and get a bus to the tram, that is nonsense, that does not enable people to use public transport in an efficient way.
“We must be able to put our bicycles on buses, and onto trams and onto trains and actually use them to get around because not every person lives within walking distance of a bus stop, and not everybody has their end destination within a very short space of a bus stop
“Being able to integrate active travel within the bus network is absolutely key. We need to go further.”
Lib Dem candidate Mr Lepori said he would champion the introduction of a single ticketing zone system across the region.
“I want a fully integrated active transport public transport network, that involves trains, trams buses,” he said.
“Bikes on all those forms of transport so you can cycle to a stop, get on that public transport, get off the other side and cycle to wherever you want to go.
“It’s common sense and it’s done around the world. It feeds into that dealing with air pollution.
“Why have we got the bus companies not wanting to do this? Because it will hit their profits.
"We need buses to go where we want them to go.
"We need to have roots to those hard to reach parts of Greater Manchester.”
Mr Burnham said the question of how to improve the bus network was the ‘big choice’ facing the public of Greater Manchester ahead of casting their vote.
“It’s only by taking control of the system so we decide where the buses go, we decide what the buses charge that we can create a London-style integrated transport system,” he added.
“By 2025 I commit to having effectively a single system over bus and tram where people can take as many as they like in a given day and only pay up to a cap.
“I am not going to accept the status quo.”
However, Ms Evans (pictured above), the Conservative candidate, challenged Mr Burnham on his franchising plans and thanked the bus companies for their work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said: “The concept of this is the mayor’s big plan is to talk about buses when we’ve got police in special measures is quite shocking.
“We’re only buying up old bus depots with the system that the mayor’s presently looking at, he’s also looking at a ticketing machine and 57 more staff. We’re not talking about greener cleaner buses to go to more places.
“I think that the way the consultation was done during Covid was unacceptable and I also think we should say a big thank you to the bus operators and the bus drivers who have done absolutely so much during Covid to keep going.”
Powering up the mayor
The four candidates were also asked what single power they wanted to be devolved from Westminster to the Mayoralty.
Mr Leposi for the Liberal Democrats called for public health budgets to be removed from the hands of individual council and put under the control of Greater Manchester.
“So we can better manage future pandemics and health scares and other health issues within our city region with a public health taskforce that can be deployed more effectively and more nimbly,” he said.
“As opposed to a fragmented ten council approach to public health.”
Labour’s Andy Burnham said it was a choice between ‘social security, the DWP budget or post-16 skills’.
But picking the latter, he added: “If we are to continue to see the inward investment that we’ve seen here in recent years, we need to ensure that we’ve got a talent pipeline into the digital economy.
“Our local industrial strategy needs a local skills strategy to underpin it and at the moment as a country I think we do skills very badly, it’s all about the university route and young people who are not on the university route often get treated very much as an afterthought, second class citizens.”
Melanie Horrocks for the Greens called for powers to be able to control rents for people living in Greater Manchester.
“What’s more important and would affect more people directly would be to lobby for and obtain powers over a rent control panel to enable us to look at the rents being charged across the city region,” she said.
“And to put in place the powers to protect renters, to look at what the maximum rent would be being charged in comparison to earnings.”
There is some cross party support for rent control, with Mr Burnham, Ms Horrocks and Mr Lepori all speaking out in favour of an overhaul of the private rented sector.
But Ms Evans did not highlight a new power to add to the arsenal of the mayoralty, arguing it had plenty already.
“We have an enormous amount of power we are not using in Greater Manchester so before we rush off to find any more I think we need to work with the powers that we’ve got a lot better,” she said.
“Social care in particular, where we’ve got issues, pockets across Greater Manchester are not working well.
“For me it would be definitely all about healthcare and making sure that we make it work an awful lot better than it does at the moment.”
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