After he was elected in May, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham wasted little time in announcing a summit to help push the city’s digital ambitions forward.
“It seemed to me this was a space that Manchester needed to grab hold of and really take as our own,” he said as I chatted to him yesterday, while attendees tucked into sandwiches during that summit’s lunch break.
“It’s my job to give people a direction and something to buy into. People in political positions tend to lose people – they want to micro-manage… I’m not here to write the plan, I want people to feel that they can shape it and take it forward.”
Burnham sees the digital summit as an example of a new, more participatory form of politics. He wants to “make politics work better for people, deliver better outcomes and solutions.”
Panel debates set the tone of the summit, but the meat of the event was a series of workshops. In these, attendees concocted ideas to improve Greater Manchester’s digital offering. These ideas will be further explored in a second summit in December.
Teaching to the unconverted
Burnham took the opportunity at the summit to announce a couple of new initiatives. A Digital Infrastructure Board will look at public, private, and third sector collaboration around 5G and fibre internet connectivity. The bigger talking point though, was a new Digital Skills Fund.
Initially worth £2 million of public money, Burnham wants other bodies and businesses to contribute to the fund. This is a similar approach to his fund for tackling homelessness. He hopes it will help create a unified plan for how to deal with the area’s digital skills shortage.
The fund won’t just focus on ensuring young people have the right skills. Burnham says there’s lots of work to be done in reskilling adults via ‘conversion’ courses as a bridge into the digital sector.
“The tech world and the digital world is quite frightening to those people outside it, and I include myself in this. There’s an in-crowd, maybe, and it’s fast-moving. People who feel outside of it feel very outside of it and I think we need to do something about it.”
“I want the North as a whole to rise again.”
Burnham says that he’s very much up for collaborating with other cities, such as Liverpool. “I don’t want us to be ‘the London of the North ‘and everyone feels that we get everything. I want to be an enabler and a partner – I want the North as a whole to rise again.”
Northern collaboration aside, it’s Burnham’s job to put Greater Manchester first, at a time when the city region is rediscovering its identity.
During his election campaign, Burnham often invoked Manchester’s musical glory days – from Joy Division to Oasis via the Madchester era. And yet, bands like the Stone Roses and the Smiths inspired a local pride in Manchester at a time when the city was in post-industrial decline.
Nowadays the city is very much on the up, but it’s harder to see the kind of pride and ‘swagger’ of that time in modern Mancunians. I put it to Burnham that digital success could be the thing to reignite that local passion within the population.
His eyes light up. “I’ve got a lot to say on that topic.”
Although he was born in Merseyside, 47-year-old Burnham says he spent more time in his formative years in Manchester. “I looked around and I saw hardship, depravation, decay, decline… And I heard those bands were sending us a message – ‘you don’t belong in the gutter.’ That’s what I heard in Morrissey’s lyrics, in the Stone Roses – ‘we can be better than this.’ It was vivid for us living through that era.
“We mustn’t trade on past glories”
“We mustn’t trade on past glories and maybe those of us who lived through that era have a tendency to do that. It’s about creating the new future – remembering that era because it’s important, it made us what we are. How do we take that spirit and use it now in the modern context?”
Perhaps that guiding light of late-20th century Manchester, the late Tony Wilson, helps point the way. Burnham recounts the time he was shown around tech-focused work space The Sharp Project by a former Wilson collaborator, Rose Marley. “She said, Tony Wilson would have looked at this and said ‘this is the new rock ‘n’ roll.'”
Thinking about it, yes, he probably would. And yet, at a time when every city has bold digital ambitions, Manchester is going to have to do more than just Roll With It.