Discover more from The Mill
Andy Burnham is about to get more powers - and face more scrutiny
Plus: The Manchester residents paying for mortgages on uninhabitable flats
Dear Millers — for months now we’ve been hunting down a large and forbidding target: reaching 2,000 paying members. And sometime between 2am, when our editor went to bed, and 6am, when our first reporter awoke and checked the numbers, we got there! This is 2k Day at Mill HQ and we’re celebrating riotously by sitting in the office writing about Andy Burnham’s new devolution deal and preparing another jam-packed Monday briefing for you.
“Selfishly I wanna believe I was the 2,000th,” tweeted the great Manchester photographer @manc_wanderer. Maybe he was, but the formidable tech expertise we have in-house at The Mill has not been equal to the task of working out who that landmark-smashing new member was, so it will remain a romantic mystery. What is less mysterious is what got us over the line: Jack and Mollie’s members-only story last week about what’s happened at Escape to Freight Island was massively popular and added more paid subs in a day than we normally get in two weeks.
If you’re one of those 2,004 members we have now, thanks from everyone on the team. It was by no means a given that we would be able to build a large community of people who appreciate high quality journalism and are willing to fund it, but it’s happened. Some of you have been members from the very beginning in 2020 and the rest have joined along the way. We appreciate every one of our 32,718 Millers, but it’s you members who have funded every story we’ve done, every journalist we’ve hired and who have collectively created one of the country’s most promising new media ventures for years.
Many of you have posted lots of tweets supporting The Mill and have told your friends and far-flung family members about us. We appreciate all your support more than you know and we look forward to celebrating with some of you at our Mill Members’ Club at the end of the month — and the other ones coming up this Spring.
Just as our member numbers were surging on the back of last week’s Freight Island story, someone sent us this video of an unexpected Mill mention at a conference organised by the Financial Times. “The quality is superb,” leading media analyst Douglas McCabe told the audience: “Their whole approach expresses to me how this whole industry can roll forward into something more sustainable".
We hope you enjoyed Jack Dulhanty’s weekend read, which involved several long hours drinking Guinness and reporting in Manchester’s Irish pubs. “I love @ManchesterMill and have subscribed since day dot,” tweeted one Miller. But this is possibly the best read ever, as an adopted, part Irish, Mancunian alcoholic.” “Lovely article,” wrote Craigy, one of our members, in the comments. “I’ve been back in Ireland for nearly a year now, and I actually spent my last night in Manchester in Fiddler’s, so I’m sad to hear it’s closing. I’ll never forget taking English and Italian colleagues there, who were somewhat sceptical, and having some oul boy trying to sell us fake watches. A home from home.”
Tomorrow morning we’ll be publishing a great members-only feature by the music writer Hugh Morris about a fascinating battle to be the next assistant conductor at the Hallé orchestra. If you’re not a member yet, join up by hitting the button below. It costs just £19p a day if you pay for a year up front.
🌦 This week’s weather
This week’s forecast is from local weatherman Martin Miles, who says this week will be unsettled, with both sunshine and showers. Temperatures will be mild at first before a chillier end to the week.
Tuesday 🌦 Breezy with sunny spells and showers. Max 13C.
Wednesday 🌦 Windy with sunshine and occasional heavy showers. Max 13C.
Thursday 🌦 Breezy with heavy showers developing into the afternoon. Max 12C.
Friday 🌦 Sunshine & heavy showers with a risk of thunder. Max 10C.
Weekend ☁️ Turning a little cooler but remaining unsettled. Highs around 10C.
You can find the latest forecast at Manchester Weather on Facebook — daily forecasts are published at 6.15am.
The big story: ‘Devolution is a process, not an event’
Top line: In the recently announced Trailblazer Devolution Deal, Greater Manchester has been granted greater control over its transport infrastructure, education policy, housing plans and finances. Andy Burnham has described it as the region’s “most significant” devolution deal yet. But what does it all mean?
Context: Greater Manchester’s first big devolution deal was signed in 2014 — giving the city region an elected mayor and a bit more power over things like health and social care. “It was about the first step in a journey, and it was about creating a counterfactual of devolved political power,” said Mike Emmerich, the former Downing Street advisor who was heavily involved in the original deal.
Ever since then, Burnham and his team at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority have been pushing for more powers and funding streams to be devolved so that better, more responsive decisions can be made locally. Last year, we published a long read on what will be required to reverse the country’s unusually dire regional economic disparities. “It's not rocket science — it's money and power,” Professor Diane Coyle from the University of Cambridge told us. “And all of that has been sucked out of other parts of the country and withdrawn to London over time.”
The Trailblazer deal is a step away from that paradigm, and gives GM more control over four main levers.
Transport: The deal commits to fully integrating Manchester’s transport system — a tap-in tap-out system operating across buses, trains and trams, like in London.
Housing: GM will have control over its affordable housing funding programme, worth £400m, but not until 2026.
Education: The deal will make GM the “central convenor” of career provision in the city, so local leaders can tailor post-16 studies to better suit the local jobs market.
Finances: The government will give Burnham one block of funding over several years to spend as he sees fit, and the mayor and GM’s ten council leaders will face select committees of MPs scrutinising that spending.
Response: Broadly, the Trailblazer deal has been welcomed as a genuine step forward in the devolution process. “I thought it was immensely positive,” says David Higham, a former government economist who has spent a lot of time thinking about regional inequalities. “It really was the culmination of what Greater Manchester has been pushing for 15 years.”
The Guardian called the deal “a belated and welcome admission that Whitehall does not always know best.” They say the deal is a sign of genuine levelling up, after “three lost years” of local authorities bidding for “piecemeal pots of money”.
Details: In the document outlining the Trailblazer deal, there are a lot of references to “partnerships” and giving GM a “new and influential role” in various decisions. But as economist Andrew Sissons pointed out on Twitter, none of this is legally binding, and could all be dropped later.
“Fundamentally, Westminster doesn’t want to give power away,” says Sarah Longlands, the chief executive of the Centre for Local Economies think tank. “So, they’ll always be some reluctance to go the extra mile and make it legally binding.” As such, devolution will always be an incremental process, which takes us to…
The bottom line: This is really just the beginning. Devolution across the country is patchy and inconsistent, and while GM was top of the list of places most able to handle new powers, a lot of the next few years will be about proving it can handle the responsibility and accountability. This won’t just mean scrutiny from Whitehall, but from voters too. “Devolution is a process,” says Higham. “Not an event.”
Your Mill briefing
Avanti West Coast, the much-maligned train operator, has had its contract extended by six months. “What?!! How!” has been the general response. The Department for Transport says the new contract will run to October, after Avanti made improvements to its services. The numbers seem to support that assessment: 5% of Avanti's services were cancelled in the four weeks to 3 March, an improvement on the 10.5% in the four weeks to 4 February and 18.9% in the four weeks to 7 January. Andy Burnham described the extension as a “disappointment” and said: “Most people in the North West would have wanted this contract to be removed today. The time for excuses has passed — they either improve or hand back the franchise.”
Sale Foodhall, a corner shop and canteen that opened on Stanley Square in November 2021, is closing due to rising costs. It hosted a variety of independent vendors, but the owners have now said: "After facing unprecedented cost increases over the last 12 months, we are unable to keep the business moving forward sustainably.” Its closure will fuel further discussion about the viability of the foodhall model — or at least how many of these kinds of venues Greater Manchester can support.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership have proposed a new funding system in England that would “cut out” the Treasury and decentralise England’s fiscal model. The idea is to divert a penny from national insurance contributions toward local infrastructure, raise money through a hotel tax and replace council tax, stamp duty and business rates with a single devolved land value tax.
The body of Bryn Hargreaves, a former rugby player from Wigan who has been missing for over a year in West Virginia, has been found. Hargreaves’ family enlisted the help of a private investigator after initial police searches were unsuccessful. The cause of death is still unknown.
Home of the week
This cosy two bedroom terrace in Altrincham is on the market for £335,000. It has period features, stained glass windows in the hallway, it’s just a short walk from the town centre. As you can imagine, our Home of the Week is often our most-clicked link in the briefing. If you’re a local estate agent or property company and you want to give us some money to sponsor the Home of the Week for a month and support our journalism at the same time, please get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Our favourite reads
Manchester flat owners paying out for homes no one can live in — The Sunday Times
This fascinating story in The Sunday Times tells the tale of the leaseholders at Aura Court, a block of flats in Old Trafford once considered “a piece of prime real estate” but now is left to deteriorate. An inspection after the Grenfell Tower fire revealed there was cladding across the three top floors of the building and the escape route was so dangerous that if there were a fire, the residents could be trapped in the building. The remediation work was estimated at £10.9 million. 21 out of the 47 apartments were forced to evacuate, but residents continue to pay mortgages, service charges, management fees and standing energy charges on the flats.
Our need to boogie on down — The Financial Times
Dance Your Way Home by Emma Warren, an oral history of the worldwide dance scene, explores the possibility of dancing as an act of communion. In the book, she traces the “cultural and regional imprints” of our dance moves, reflecting on her own clubbing experiences in southeast London and Manchester, and how “music informs movement and vice versa”. This review calls it a “well-guided trip down memory lane” and a call to “get on the dancefloor”.
There is a worrying amount of fraud in medical research — The Economist
Fake science and fabricated clinical trials are dominating the scientific world, with some studies being published with data that is “virtually impossible”. The impact can be fatal: critically ill patients were once given starch to boost their blood pressure, based on a number of studies that are now discredited. Jack Wilkinson, a biostatician at the University of Manchester who has developed a tool to detect fabrications, is worried about an “arms race” between fabricators and those trying to catch them. “For the sake of the science, it might be time for scientists to start trusting each other a little less.”
Our to do list
🏢 The Modernist, a lovely bookshop and gallery in the Northern Quarter, is displaying Elena Michajlowska’s exhibition about the brutalist mass-housing towers that are home to millions of Ukrainians and the future of Ukraine’s urban landscape. It’s free to visit.
🥗 In response to “the f*cked state of the country”, every Tuesday, The Old Abbey Taphouse is offering free food and music to lift the spirits. All the food is vegan friendly and “pay as you feel”, and the event is open mic, so expect a variety of genres and performers. More here.
🍋 Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, a romantic-comedy play “about the beauty and preciousness of language” and a couple learning to express their love, is showing at the Opera House this week. It stars Jenna Coleman and has been described as “real and tender” by Guardian critics, who awarded it three stars. Tickets are £13.
🐸 An evening in honour of the harlequin toads, one of the world’s rarest frogs which has survived against the odds thanks to a massive conservation effort by Manchester Museum. There will be drinks, celebrations, and talks from leading amphibian specialists. Reserve a free place here. Read more about this: With no visitors in sight, Manchester Museum oversees an epic struggle for survival.
🎹 Electronic artist and classical composer John Bence is performing a rare gig at the White Hotel this week, which promises to pack “a juddering emotional punch”. Tickets are £10.
🎤 A live band is performing a free night of soul, blues, hip-hop and afrobeat at Niamos, a stunning Edwardian theatre in Hulme that has been converted into a community creative space and arts centre. More here.
🎭 The Royal Exchange is showing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’ prizewinning classic about an ugly battle for succession on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. Longtime Mill member and Manchester theatre watcher John Tucker writes: “If it works, it should be the highlight of the theatrical year.” Tickets here.
🧘 Head to the Whitworth for an early morning yoga session in the beautiful Victorian Galleries, plus a healthy breakfast in the Gallery Cafe. Beginners are welcome, and you can book a place here.
🎦 Is there anybody there? is an exhibition of 70 amateur films shot in the North West between 1901 and 1999, dug out of the archives at Manchester Metropolitan University to explore “cultural traditions, procession and ceremony… and how endlessly performed rituals can become estranged out of time”. It’s showing at HOME, and it’s free to attend.
For an insider’s guide on where to be and what to see on the weekend — which we send out every Thursday — hit the button below to join us as a member.