Former health secretary Andy Burnham blasts ‘irrelevant’ Whitehall

Written by Jim Dunton on 17 November 2017 in News
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Labour minister-turned-Greater Manchester mayor berates anachronistic policymaking processes

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has described Whitehall policymaking processes as incapable of delivering tailored solutions to many of the social problems faced by the UK today.

Burnham, who was a Labour MP for 16 years and served as chief secretary to the Treasury, culture secretary, and latterly health secretary in the Gordon Brown's government, said his current role had much greater potential to develop bottom-up solutions to problems.

In an interview with better-government advocacy foundation the Centre for Public Impact, Burnham – who stood down as an MP when he won the Greater Manchester mayoral election in May – said directly involving citizens in problem-solving was “the big thing” that had come from his work to date in his current role.


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“If you are to realise a city-region’s potential, then you have to involve people differently,” he said.

“Running a city or a city region in the old Whitehall way – ie publishing strategy documents decided in closed rooms and then instructing the public sector to work in a certain way – is now so totally out of date it is utterly irrelevant.”

Burnham said he was pioneering a system of policy co-design that drew in local people and organisations with an interest in particular areas.

“This is the opportunity that comes with having a decision-making body close to where people are – you could never do this from Whitehall,” he said.

Burnham pointed to the Homelessness Action Network his mayoral team has created, and which has been “engaged” in writing the strategy on rough-sleeping and homelessness.

“On a completely different topic – digital and tech – we have convened an initial summit meeting of all the players in that world and I have asked them to write a plan for skills and infrastructure,” he added.

“This principle of co-design is something that we are really putting at the heart of everything we’re doing.”

Burnham said there was a “massive appetite” for grassroots-driven policymaking.

“In many ways we’re probably not opening up quickly enough for people,” he said. “But remember it’s not year zero – Greater Manchester has had a strong partnership culture over a long period of time. However, there is a feeling we can take it to the next level and also have more influence on policies that have traditionally been out of our reach.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Burnham accepted that the Labour governments in which he served had missed opportunities to pursue the regional devolution agenda with the fervour that George Osborne and David Cameron did from 2010.

“Where devolution was delivered by Labour 20 years ago – London, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – I would say it has worked for those places; it has built a more vibrant culture,” he said.

“Devolution was meant to come to England, starting in the North East, and then the North West would come afterwards.

“I was actually involved in a body called ‘Yes for the North West’ but we never got the chance to go public with our campaign after voters in the North East rejected it. So, we had an instinct to do something but it was probably the wrong proposal, as regions lack the identification of cities and it also looked like a very bureaucratic extra layer of government.”

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