The newly elected Mayor for Greater Manchester Andy Burnham began his time in office this week with pledges to tackle homelessness, create a free bus pass for 16-18 year olds in education and promote mental health and well-being through a range of talking therapies for anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
This emphasis upon young people is something which Burnham says makes him stand apart from other politicians. During the mayoral campaign, while all of the candidates talked about Brexit, housing and transport, Burnham presented his idea for a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships, and a new school-leaving route for young people wishing to start a business. While politicians usually target their messages towards the older voting population, one glance at his manifesto shows the kind of aspirational politics which has proved extremely popular in the past across a broad range of voters.
Indeed, one of Burnham's aims within Greater Manchester is to demonstrate Labour policy in action at a regional level. Already, he has pledged to reinstate nursing and midwifery bursaries for the region's health service, introduce a student bus pass to replace the loss of EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance), and has made hints that by taking over the management of a devolved Department for Work and Pensions budget, he could reverse many of the benefit sanctions which, nationally, have resulted in increased instances of mental illness and suicide. It is this mix of social justice and aspirational vision which won Burnham an impressive landslide victory across Greater Manchester's 287 wards, even in traditionally Conservative-voting areas.
Instead of asking people to choose between social investment and a growing economy, Burnham argues that we can do both. Key to this vision is investment in mental health. Mental health problems like anxiety and depression not only prevent individuals from reaching their potential, but impact on the economy too. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 70 million work days are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK, costing approximately £2.4 billion to employers. There is a growing recognition nationally that mental well-being--everyday management of mental health in parity with physical health--is conducive to a motivated and more productive workforce, as well as healthier, happier lives.
It is no surprise either that poor mental health is closely linked to social deprivation. Children growing up in low-income households are more likely to self-harm and experience feelings of worthlessness, clinical depression and anxiety. If not properly treated, these mental health problems may escalate resulting in homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, patients presenting at A&E in a situation of crisis or taking their own lives. For young people, intervention is even more important. Experiencing episodes of depression or anxiety during GCSEs or A-Levels can affect people's career prospects for the rest of their lives. Coupled with mental health training for schools and community groups and the creation of mental health 'first aiders', talking therapies can ensure that mental health treatments remain as low-level interventions and do not escalate into high-cost psychiatric treatments. They can also help to bolster the success of Greater Manchester's future workforce.
Andy's vision for Greater Manchester is one of local government intervention aimed at helping people onto the housing ladder and into employment. It's a socialist message, but also a common sense approach to boosting the local economy. Investing in mental health is one key factor in Burnham's plan to getting the gears of Greater Manchester's economy turning. But, as with anything related to the devolution project, there is a massive question relating to funding. This week, Burnham donated 15 percent of his monthly Mayoral salary to start the Greater Manchester Homelessness Fund; a sign that community-driven action, supported by local businesses, may take the place of absent government funding from Westminster. Burnham will seek to promote this active, community-driven investment in the next 3 years, encouraging businesses to invest in his causes by stressing the benefits for the entire city of helping its worst-off.
If he is successful, he will show that Labour's model works on the ground and present a credible and successful alternative to austerity. As the result in Manchester shows, this would go a long way towards winning votes from the Conservatives in a general election. The astonishing result in Greater Manchester, with Burnham winning throughout the city including in Tory-voting constituencies, is proof of the potential of his politics.