‘We thought things were bad, but we were struck’: Can Manchester win the fight against inequality?

  • Greater Manchester is well below national average in most inequality measures, new report suggests
  • The report entails recommendations to Greater Manchester Combined Authority to achieve 'a good life for all'
  • Mayor Andy Burnham supports vision and promises to implement recommendations during launch of report

Black people die twice as often from Covid-19 as white people, but a new inequalities report suggests a “good life for all” in Manchester is possible.

Mayor Andy Burnham supports the vision of the Manchester Independent Inequalities Commission despite the dire picture painted by the summary of the Commission’s findings.

Even before the pandemic, the region was fractured by inequalities. Gender, age, locality and ethnic background make a significant difference in the lives of people in Greater Manchester. One example: women in Stockport can on average expect to live four years longer than their Manchester counterparts.

The Commission presented its report at a press conference with Andy Burnham and Councillor Brenda Warrington on Friday, March 26. The 65-page document is based on six months of research and shows how the city region consistently trails behind the rest of England in matters of equality.

  • Employment: For people from minority ethnic groups in Greater Manchester, employment rates are more than 10 percentage points below the overall working-age employment rate, six percentage points below the national average, and vary significantly by locality. 

  • Skill levels: 37% of Greater Manchester’s working-age population have skills at Level 4 and above, compared to the England average of 40%; and a relatively large share of 9% has no qualifications. 

  • School readiness: in the 2018/19 school year, 68% of reception-age children in Greater Manchester were assessed as having a ‘good level of development’, compared to 72% nationally. 

  • Weekly pay: The median gross weekly pay for all workers living in Greater Manchester is £456, the English average £482. Median pay within the region varies between £420 per week for Rochdale residents to £525 for Bury residents. Women are paid £125 per week less than men. The situation for low-pay workers has slightly improved thanks to the introduction of the National Living Wage, but Black and Black British workers have benefited less than others.

According to the report, the pandemic has amplified inequalities. Death rates for people with Black African or Black Caribbean background are more than twice as high as for white people. Death rates also increase with people’s degree of disabilities and for South Asian older women who tend to live with their children and their families, making it difficult to shield.

Simon Woolley, Commission member, activist and cross-bench peer, said during the presentation of the report: “We thought things were bad, but when Covid came and shone a light and laid bare those deep-seated inequalities, we were all struck.”

However, the Commission strikes an optimistic tone both in the report and during the press conference.

Half of the report draws out a roadmap towards a vision of a “good life for all” in Manchester, which puts the wellbeing of its residents first. The report defines wellbeing as “a good job, a decent home, affordable transport, digital access, green space, clean air and safe streets, support to maintain good health, the chance to learn and develop”.

The Commission suggests a strategy that combines a leadership prioritising inequalities from the top with increased bottom-up participation from people and communities.

The report has 17 detailed practical recommendations for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). Most of them build on organisations, projects and strategies that already exist locally – such as the Bolton approach to creating “social value”, Bury Council’s Growth Plan, the “Salford Way”, or Wigan’s Community Wealth Building Strategy.

Miatta Fahnbulleh, Commission member and chief executive of the New Economics Foundation, said: “The Commission’s job is to put a rocket behind the good work already happening.”

She explained the five main goals of the recommendations:

  • An Essential Pivot: Put wellbeing and equality goals at the heart of the Greater Manchester Strategy and get anchor institutions on board to help fund the necessary change. 

  • People Power: Join and strengthen existing efforts to fight structural racism and discrimination, including the introduction of a GMCA Race Equality Strategy. 

  • Good Jobs, Decent Pay: Set up “GM Works” to create jobs and teach people the necessary skills, including apprenticeships and 6-month Job Guarantees for disadvantaged groups. Set a target for all GM employers to offer living hours at Living Wage until 2030. Bridge the skills divide with the help of universities and other education institutes. 

  • Building Wealth: Create an “effective flows of finance and locally productive forms of businesses”; for example through employee-owned firms, cooperatives, community businesses and social enterprises. 

  • Services for a good life: Improve access to universal services such as education, health care, housing and transport. 
Kate Pickett, Commission chair and epidemiology professor, said: “The vision we describe is not a utopia. We found a lot of good things are already happening – they are just not all happening in the same place. And it is the Commission’s vision that Greater Manchester is the place where they do all happen.” 
It has long been known that inequality is a problem in Greater Manchester. In 2012 the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission investigated poverty in the city region for six months. The result was a report with 16 recommendations for the GMCA, including improving access to universal services, developing a Living Wage campaign, and helping disadvantaged communities benefit from economic growth.

Almost 10 years later, maps of the geography of deprivation in Greater Manchester look strikingly similar in both reports.

Geography of Deprivation in Greater Manchester, left: 2012, right: 2021.

In 2021, the Greater Manchester Independent Inequalities Commission is optimistic things will turn out differently this time. The report argues, “the pandemic has already disrupted the old ways”, offering a chance for actual change.

Activist and peer Woolley said: “We don’t want to build back better, we want to build new better.”

He called the Commission’s plans “ambitious, desirable – but achievable.”

Mayor Andy Burnham, the man it all depends on, agrees.

Burnham said: “The brutal truth is that the pandemic has exposed […] that the quality of some people’s work and some people’s housing situation has become so poor in this country that it has left them unable to protect their health, the health of their family and the health of people around them in a global pandemic.

“The reality is that in this city region, but it is true for the rest of the country, out Black communities, our Asian communities, all minority communities are overrepresented in the professions that have been most at risk throughout the pandemic.”

He promised on the spot to act on some of the recommendations: “We will embrace your idea of becoming a Living Wage city region. We think that is good for business as well as people. We will link our Good Employment Charta to all public procurements in Greater Manchester.”

Burnham also said he accepted the report’s evaluation of the housing situation and announced the GMCA would consider a proposal to introduce a Good Landlord Charta as an attempt to drive up standards in the private housing market.

As a milestone in making universal services accessible he mentioned his recent approval of plans to take back public control of Greater Manchester’s bus network to build a more affordable London-style system. He emphasised that women and people from disadvantaged communities are the predominant users of Manchester buses.

Burnham’s conclusion is a reflection of his own experience, he says: “If you set people up to succeed with what they have to have a good life, they will succeed. But if you set people up to fail, they will fail. And we have reached a point in this country where we are setting millions of people up to fail because we don’t give them a job that gives them basic day-to-day security.”

Almost a decade since the poverty report, it is time for someone to finally win the Manchester inequality marathon.