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The very reluctant rise of Paul Dennett
The left-wing leader of Salford may well be the successor to Andy Burnham. But he sounds nothing like the current mayor
In November last year, temperatures were plummeting and the number of rough sleepers was on the up. I knew this because I was at Andy Burnham’s offices on Oxford Road, having been summoned along with other journalists to a snap press conference about homelessness.
After an hour, I asked Burnham and his panel of local leaders and homelessness experts a question: why were they putting so much focus on rough sleeping when the number of homeless people living in temporary accommodation was many times higher and has risen unusually fast in this city compared to other areas of the country? It was a relatively innocuous question and Burnham answered it with his usual deftness – pained look; address the journalist by name; give an answer of exaggerated earnestness; provide some subtle pushback to the question while displaying comforting levels of concern. Bev Craig, the leader of Manchester City Council did likewise – she’s new to the job but she’s already a polished media performer. So far, I hadn’t provoked an interesting response to write in that day’s Mill briefing. Shame.
Then the microphone moved to Paul Dennett, the elected mayor of Salford and now Burnham’s deputy. I hadn’t addressed the question to him, but housing and homelessness were part of his Greater Manchester brief and he was champing at the bit. “The growth in temporary accommodation is a consequence of the housing crisis,” he said, looking directly at me. “So what’s driving the housing crisis?”
His voice was rising. The list of factors was lengthening. Facts and figures were sputtered out like machine gun bullets. “Since 1980, we’ve lost over 95,000 homes as a consequence of Right To Buy,” he said. “40% we know from national data are finding their way into the private rented sector.”
His face was reddening and I wrote “quite animated” in my notes. Dennett was still going and his explanation was becoming ever more multi-faceted.
“Developers who are turning around and saying they can’t contribute to Section 106 payments.”
My notes again: “Wow – almost shouting at times.”
“And we do need a rent cap in the private rented sector.”
After a few minutes it was over, and the press conference returned to its previous tenor. But I had seen a flash of something from Paul Dennett – the man who runs Salford and may one day succeed Andy Burnham to run Greater Manchester – and after the Christmas break I got in touch with his press aide and asked if I could come to visit for an interview.
‘All you're thinking about is looking after each other’
Dennett grew up in Great Sankey, just outside Warrington, in the 1980s. His dad worked at the local power station and after he lost that job, he used his redundancy money to buy a pub – The Engine – up the road in Prescot, which sits roughly between Warrington and Liverpool. Nowadays Prescot is rapidly smartening up, driven by the recent arrival of the Shakespeare North Playhouse, but when the Dennetts moved there it was a solidly working-class town.
In the pub, the school-age Dennett was witness to “eye-opening” things: locals who spent their whole weekends drinking, and sometimes brawling; domestic abuse. He saw some of the same things at home – his dad sinking into alcoholism and committing violence against his mum. He remembers “running away to grandparents, and staying away from the pub when dad just went crazy”. He recalls how difficult it was to focus on schoolwork when “all you're thinking about is looking after each other, making sure each other is okay. And that includes, you know, my mum and my two brothers.”
Dennett realised he was a different kind of person to his dad. “We were interested in different things,” he says. “I spent a lot of time just reading and when I was younger I went to church.” His dad lived “a bit of a bachelor life” in which he would sometimes disappear or come home and then head straight to the pub. “He was big into his sports, and he was big into going out and drinking and gambling,” he says. How aware was he of the violence in the household as a teenager, I ask him? “It's only when you get to a certain age, you start to observe these things and reflect on them and think about them a bit more.”
In person, Dennett seems incredibly smart – reeling off 2017 budget numbers and the acronyms for arcane government funding initiatives in response to my questions. But he says he didn’t do well in his A-levels, not helped by the disruption he was experiencing at home. He attended the University of Ulster as a mature student and found that the scholarly milieu suited him. After a year back in Warrington, working at United Utilities, he came to Manchester for an MSc in industrial relations and HR at the University of Manchester’s business school, before completing his masters and PHd at MMU, researching private finance initiatives and public private partnerships.
His thesis was “a critique, if you like, of Anthony Giddens, his third way, a critique of new public management, a critique of this whole notion of private sector efficiency,” he says. And here we have Dennett in his essence – serious-minded; theoretical; a workaholic mayor who gives relatively few interviews and who believes that the improvement of Salford and Greater Manchester will not come about by soundbites but by careful study and the rigorous implementation of big ideas.
In one of his few high profile interviews, Dennett described himself to the Guardian two years ago as a “sensible socialist”, committed to putting Salford on a path of more equitable, less market-driven growth than Manchester. The piece noted that he “still lives in the same two-bed council flat he moved into long before becoming a politician,” and outlined his belief that social housing should return to its original vision of hosting mixed communities, “where doctors and shopkeepers and cleaners could all coexist”.
Dennett became a Salford councillor for the Langworthy ward in 2012 and the second directly-elected city mayor (equivalent to a council leader) in May 2016. Media stories from that period sometimes describe him as a “Corbynite”, understandably, given his strong support for the then Labour leader. In 2016, he was the co-signatory of a letter condemning a post-Brexit effort to unseat Corbyn ("We the undersigned reject what appears to be an organised coup”), and the mayor tells me that, to this day, he thinks Corbyn should still be a Labour MP.
Praising Corbyn is not the done thing for anyone who has any ambition in the Labour Party of Sir Keir Starmer, but Dennett says he isn’t an ambitious man and he doesn’t support Starmer’s decision to suspend Corbyn from the party. “Jeremy Corbyn should be part of the parliamentary Labour Party, absolutely,” he says, referring to “the work he's [Corbyn’s] done historically on tackling issues of inequalities and his commitment to the labour movement more broadly.”
What about Momentum, the left-wing campaigning movement that is closely associated with Corbyn’s reign – is he a member? “I am a member of Momentum,” Dennett says, before seeming to back away from that answer in a slightly confusing way. “But we don't have a Momentum branch in Salford, I don't attend meetings. I do some conferences as and when I get asked to. So what do we mean by being a member of Momentum, I guess is the question?”
Those answers tell you interesting things about Dennett’s politics and they strongly suggest he is not planning to quit his job to become an MP any time soon. But what Dennett really enjoys talking about – genuinely enjoys talking about, even when you just bump into him in the street as I did the other day – is not frivolous media stuff but the unglamorous meat and veg of local government: budgets; funding streams; housing reform.
As we begin our interview, I notice he has two pages of printed notes in front of him on which at least half of the words look like they have been underlined. He speaks in a technical and academic language you would never hear from Burnham, or any front line politician. “It's about creating a socio-cultural phenomena, really,” he says at one point. Within minutes, I have the impression he had mistaken me for one of his council colleagues – someone who knows the official jargon and is au fait with niche local government drama. “You know, the government's got form on this,” he said while we were discussing Salford’s latest funding deal. “If you remember the sweetheart deals with Surrey County Council, if you remember transitional grant funding, which benefited those Tory councils, predominantly in the south of…” I tell him I’m not aware of Surrey’s sweetheart deal.
In a way, I find Dennett’s nerdiness quite reassuring. This, let’s just say, is not someone who gives much time to how he comes across on TV. By his own admission, he spends most evenings working, a trait he shares with Manchester’s former council leader Sir Richard Leese, although Dennett is keen to point out that he has a more left-wing vision for his city than Leese did for his. When I search Dennett’s name on Spotify to listen to a few podcast interviews he’s given, I don’t find a single one. On YouTube, the choice of Paul Dennett videos is sparse – the odd mini interview at a conference and a short clip in which he talks earnestly about Friedrich Engels.
His big theme is about the role of local government – how it needs to be more involved in our communities and our schools and our lives. “Local government has been hollowed out and services have been contracted to the private sector,” he tells me. “This whole idea that the market is the best vehicle for delivering public services. Well, fundamentally, I've never believed in that.”
Heir to Burnham
A good example of local government taking a more active role is his mission to build council housing in Salford. It’s being done by a council-owned company called Dérive (“named after a Marxist psycho-geographical concept developed by Guy Debord, a French philosopher,” notes the Guardian – very on brand for Dennett) and is building hundreds of homes, having worked out a clever way to get around the funding constraints that have brought council house building to a standstill since the 1980s. I’ll let Dennett explain how it works in his inimitable style. “We've established, as you know, a wholly owned housing company which sits outside of the housing revenue account,” he says. “We're using commuted sums from other development that's happening in the city.”
Another example of his interventionism (“owning assets, and utilising those assets for public good”) is in Eccles, where the council has bought the failing local shopping centre. As Oldham’s former leader Sean Fielding explained in a piece for The Mill this week, councils across Greater Manchester are doing this, in the hope that they can “curate” a new mix of shops and offices and homes in struggling town centres. But you sense with Dennett that he would buy every shopping centre he could get his hands on if he had the cash.
“It was opportunism, I guess you would say, in terms of why the city council would make such a purchase,” he explains. “But also, I've been really clear: our townships are really important to us. If I was awash with cash, I'd be wanting to do more of this.”
Which brings us to a question from a Mill reader, sent to us after we asked our Twitter followers what we should be asking Dennett. “When will the Swinton Lancastrian Hall be pulled down,” the reader asks, referring to the hulking brutalist edifice that looms over the council building where I am meeting Dennett. “It's a blight on the landscape,” the reader adds. The mayor explains that it comes down to doing deals with landowners. In the case of Eccles, the shopping centre’s owner was prepared to sell its asset for what the council regarded as a reasonable price. In Swinton, the council owns the much-hated Hall but they don’t own the adjacent precinct, whose owners have it on their books for “what I would refer to as an inflated value,” says Dennett. “We have tried to negotiate with them, the potential acquisition of the shopping precinct, but it's not at a value that we could actually commit public money to.”
Another reader asks about the AJ Bell Stadium, which is half owned by the council but is being eyed up by Gary Neville’s football team Salford FC in a joint bid with the rugby union team Sale Sharks. Such a takeover would imperil the future of rugby league team Salford City Reds at the AJ Bell and it’s been reported that Dennett plans to spend millions buying the stadium outright. “Can he confirm 100% that Sale RU [rugby union] will not be allowed to buy the council's share, and then eject Salford RL [rugby league]?” the reader asks. Dennett says he can. “I am committed to keeping Salford Reds in the City of Salford — they're 150 years old. I'm fully committed to doing all I can to safeguarding that. The bids that I saw, and the detail within those bids, didn't give me enough assurance to Salford Reds being in the city in perpetuity.”
Finally, I ask him – in the words of one of our readers – why he has “gone cold on LTNs [Low Traffic Neighbourhoods]”? As the reader puts it: “One canned in Swinton, one 'benched' in Ordsall and another in the city centre partially removed – all while traffic and pollution levels on residential roads ever increases!” He pushes back, and finally – an hour into our chat – he’s talking like a normal politician. “We've definitely not gone cold, but all of this has to happen through engagement, through consultation, and through participation,” he answers, triangulating like a true Westminster pro. I try again, attempting to catch him in a rudimentary rhetorical trap: is he committed to LTNs? “I'm committed to exploring LTNs in the City of Salford and ultimately, I'm going to be bound by what comes out of those processes in terms of what happens in communities. I'm not anti LTNs and I'm not in the space of imposing LTN everywhere across the city either.”
So what about his future? Dennett has emerged as one of the most likely contenders to take over from Burnham when he decides to step down as mayor of the city region. The other names you sometimes hear are Burnham’s night life advisor Sacha Lord (absolutely not, he said when I asked him earlier this week), the football pundit and hotel owner Gary Neville or perhaps Manchester’s new leader Bev Craig. At Greater Manchester press conferences and public meetings, Dennett often seems like the person most on top of his brief, and although he isn’t said to be personally close to Burnham, the mayor clearly trusts him.
Would he ever go for that job? “I'm not a careerist politician,” he says, pointing out that councillors, party members and trade unionists “put a lot of pressure on me” before he considered running for Salford mayor. Dennett, of course, believes in sublimating the individual to the collective (“why are people so focused on themselves in this sort of political journey? We need to be more focused on our relationship with each other”) and he always falls back to talking about the team around him rather than himself.
Ok, I say, what if the phalanx of councillors and party members and the lowliest trade unionists came to him like a group of disciples in the desert and said: “Paul, you’re the right guy to govern Greater Manchester. Will you?” He gives way. “If people wanted me to do it, and it was clear, then obviously I'd have to seriously consider it.”
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