We’re collaborating to tackle the cost of living in our city

Robbie Beale is Activities and Culture Officer at Manchester SU

Letter-writing by committee doesn’t sound like the most appealing way to spend an afternoon, but in a spontaneous first meeting of what we’re calling the Greater Manchester Students’ Assembly, that’s exactly what we got up to.

Having won the ability to set the prices of the Greater Manchester bus network, Mayor Andy Burnham announced a new bus fare scheme on the 17th of August – to much fanfare. The 4th of September will see the introduction of a £2 cap on single tickets for adults and £1 for children.

But the glaring lack of a student ticket compelled us at the University of Manchester Students’ Union (with some encouragement from our CEO Ben Ward) lobby Andy Burnham to address this.

We set off eagerly on the morning of the 26th of August for the North-West sabbatical officer networking event, kindly hosted by University of Salford Students’ Union (USSU). As we rounded the corner to Oxford Road Station I almost walked right into Andy Burnham.

Mayor, the student body of Greater Manchester congratulate you on your seizure of the right to set bus fares, and we ask that you meet with us to discuss the place of students in your grand plans for a whole region ‘bee network’”

… was what I wish I had said. Instead, I managed a surprised “Andy!”, to which the response was a bemused “hello”, and I decided against chasing after him to say that I had 20 letters addressed to him in my backpack.

It’s your letters

We arrived at Salford to find that our lovely counterparts at USSU had also written a letter to Andy about bus tickets. Having heard that previous attempts at cross-Manchester sabbatical officer collaboration hadn’t proved so fruitful, visions of competing letters landing on Andy’s desk flashed before my eyes.

My fears were misplaced however, as the Presidents of Salford SU, Bolton SU and The Union at Manchester Metropolitan were happy to spend the afternoon combining our letters – resulting in what was a substantially stronger letter than either of the two we started with.

Whilst our letter was focused on persuasive prose and a call to Mancunian greatness, Salford’s was packed with stats. The more experienced sabs of Bolton, Salford and Manchester Metropolitan informed us these were essential when speaking to government at any level, and so the resulting letter was the best of both worlds – all killer no filler.

Having gained a signature from Royal Northern College of Music’s SU as well, it currently sits in the mayor’s inbox flagged by his staff as a letter of importance, so we await a response this week.

Revolution or devolution

Our foray into collaborative letter-writing was perfectly foreshadowed by a talk delivered at the event by Wonkhe’s own James Coe, who highlighted the opportunities offered to SUs by devolution. As a student of British constitutional politics, having written my dissertation on the new sites of legitimacy and political power which are still opening up in the wake of Tony Blair’s reforms, this struck a chord with me.

Politics in Britain has become so volatile in the last decade, partly due to the proliferation of legitimate sites of power – a supreme court, the use of referendums, devolution and of course Westminster – but this has presented opportunities too. When Government is paralysed by a choice between two shades of blue, having shown little to no interest in the wellbeing of students over the last few years anyway, why bother trying to get your message heard there? Particularly when some of the most significant devolutionary powers in England operate right on our front door.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has the power to make a multitude of change to the everyday lives of our students, from transport to housing to safety. Indeed, the mayor has already shown a willingness to engage with the concerns of students – take a look at the Girls Night In protests of October last year and related anti-spiking campaigns.

Therefore, our fledgling Greater Manchester Students’ Assembly (GMSA) is the perfect vehicle to lobby this power. Changing the price of single bus tickets would be brilliant for students, but if we can continue the conversation to look at season tickets, and then branch out into other areas of concern (see housing in Manchester) then we could be onto a winner.

Fingers-crossed

This couldn’t be more timely heading into what will be a bleak year ahead for many. On Tuesday the 30th a few of us attended the Enough is Enough campaign launch in Manchester, and the cathedral was overflowing with attendees to the point where we couldn’t even get in.

Whilst we missed out on another opportunity to speak to Andy in person (and gained a chance to propose to Mick Lynch), the speeches given outside the cathedral demonstrated the power of organising regionally, with local faith leaders, community action groups, politicians and trade unionists all speaking in lockstep about the dire cost of living crisis.

Now is a crucial time for SUs to be part of a regional and national conversation, and if letter-writing by committee is what it takes, then that’s what we’ll do.

Read the letter here

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