Andy Burnham says Labour's 2002 Housing Pathfinder scheme was a 'failed attempt at top-down levelling up'

A former Labour Minister described the controversial 'housing pathfinder' scheme his government led in Yorkshire in the early 2000s as a "failed attempt to level up communities top down" as he called for regional leaders to be given more powers.

Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham warned Boris Johnson that his 'levelling up' mantra risked being a slogan like the 'big society' claims of his Conservative predecessor David Cameron without more involvement from the regions.

And he said the "gargantuan" task of rebuilding northern cities after the pandemic could not be done on the "fractured foundations of local government" as Leeds city council leader Judith Blake described how town hall budgets had been "decimated".

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Speaking at an online event organised by the Centre for Cities think-tank, Mr Burnham said the country needed a "major transfer of power and resources into the English regions to give us the chance of making 'levelling up' a real programme".

And he likened Mr Johnson's response to the pandemic, which has been criticised for being controlled too much by central government, to the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders programme led by the Labour government in which he served as a Minister for several years.

The controversial scheme of demolition, refurbishment and new-building ran between 2002 and 2011 and aimed "to renew failing housing markets in nine designated areas of the North and Midlands, including several areas of Yorkshire.

Opponents claimed that "Britain's heritage is being 'rapidly lost' by botched renovation and unnecessary demolition" and that it was "a programme of class cleansing".

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Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy BurnhamGreater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham
Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham

Mr Burnham said he was shocked at a recent BBC documentary about poverty in Burnley and that the local coronavirus restrictions on the area had "a grinding effect on some of our poorest communities".

He told the event: "And it was pointed out to me at the time, Greater Manchester, East Lancashire, West Yorkshire, this was the footprint that went under restrictions that was the same footprint of the government in which I served, its Housing Pathfinder project, people may remember that.

"That was the last failed attempt to level up those communities top down. It didn't work then. And it isn't going to work now. You can only level up bottom up in my view. I think that is a lesson now that Whitehall has to take on board, and indeed all the political parties in Westminster have to take on board."

Mr Burnham warned that "shoring up the local government base" was a prerequisite for any project to level up the country by improving the economic prospects of more deprived areas.

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And Leeds city council leader Judith Blake stressed the impact that the pandemic had on local authorities.

The Labour councillor said: "They've been decimated by the pandemic. The Government really does need to honour its commitment to supporting those council budgets so that we can play our full part in the recovery programmes."

Some £118m is set to be cut from Leeds City Council’s budget this year, with services likely to be scaled back with a dramatic immediacy never seen before in our lifetimes.

Coun Blake said some 25,500 people were furloughed in Leeds in October but that this figure was already up to 50,000. There has been a 96 per cent rise in Universal Credit claims and youth unemployment has doubled during the pandemic.

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She said: "We need to focus on people, we need to understand the devastation that has been caused to individuals, to families and just the basic resilience of our population.

"We talk a lot about the impacts of mental health and on the crisis. We need to understand that public health should be, as it is, run through local government, that it shouldn't be so subject to the cuts that it's seen over the last 10 years, the public health agenda should be being boosted from all sides at the moment."

The Centre for Cities, which organised the event, released a report today warning that the promise of levelling up the North and Midlands has been made four times harder because of the coronavirus crisis.

The research group’s annual study of the UK’s major urban areas suggested that 634,000 people outside the South East now need to find secure, well-paid jobs to level up the country, compared to 170,000 in March.

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Birmingham is the city facing the biggest levelling up challenge, followed by Hull and Blackpool, said the report.

Conservative Treasury Minister Jesse Norman defended the approach his government had taken, citing its plans for a new infrastructure bank in the North which can lend to local authorities.

He said the review of the Green Book which helps guide spending decisions would "create a fairer intellectual approach to levelling up" and that moving civil servants out of London would have "long term cultural implications".

He said: "At the end of the day we all want the same thing, we all want vibrant prosperous sustainable cities, that's not something we're going to get in a few years. We've got mayors who have seen their cities transformed over more than a few years but nevertheless transformed.

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"This is the vision, the commitment we have and I think if we work together and if we work with the dynamism in the best parts of the mayoralties and local authorities, then we can match that and remake our cities for a new post COVID era."

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