This is Greater Manchester we do elections differently here

Joel Dowson sets out how the Greater Manchester Student Partnership is doing democracy differently this election season

Joel Dowson is the Greater Manchester Students’ Partnership Manager for SUs across the region

Founder of Factory Records, owner of the Hacienda, and all round music iconoclast Tony Wilson allegedly once said “This is Manchester; we do things differently here.” This is true of our culture and approach to life, but also our politics too.

Current Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham called Manchester “the capital of coolest music on the planet” while then culture secretary John Whittingdale once implored the BBC to look outside of the “metropolitan elite” of Manchester. Burnham and Whittingdale sit at different wings of the political spectrum but their sentiments speak to a Manchester City Region that is growing in confidence, stature, and importance in the public imagination

Only one I know

And when it comes to the new devolution deals where Manchester leads the rest of the country follows. The new Trailblazer devolution deal gives the Greater Manchester Combined Authority deeper responsibility for skills, housing and transport, as well as a single funding settlement to allow greater flexibility over devolved funding.

The extent of devolution is only matched by London and in parts by the West Midlands. The election on 2nd May is therefore not only about which party wins but which leader will have the mandate to permanently shape the future of the Region. It is within this context that the students’ unions in Greater Manchester have also been working differently.

The five students’ unions in Greater Manchester have created the Greater Manchester Student Partnership (GMSP.) The idea for formalising our cross region working is straightforward. Issues of student housing, safety, opportunity, access to services, good jobs, and transport, do not end at the boundaries of our institution. A student in Salford that needs a safe place to live, or a student in Bolton that can’t afford the bus, is living in the same region governed by the same regional authority as the student in Manchester that is worried about their safety on a night out.

Our idea is a simple one. Focus on the issues that students care about and the mayor can control: housing, transport, and safety. Pool our resources to support the political engagement of students. And in turn use our insight and enthusiasm to carry out the campaigns and engagements that can make Greater Manchester an even better place to live, learn, and stay, for students in Greater Manchester.

Step on

Sometimes this work is bringing to light the student experience in vast regional plans like housing. Sometimes it is sitting down with the Mayor to share insight on how student views should inform bus franchising. And every four years we get the opportunity to bring candidates attention to a set of student issues as they seek to win their votes.

The election for the mayor of Greater Manchester is taking place on 2nd May and for the first time we have created a Greater Manchester Student Partnership Mayoral Election Manifesto. We are cognisant that there are any number of issues we could have chosen to focus on from visa reform, to maintenance loans, to access to education, but we have tightly focussed on the things the Mayor will have direct control over.

Our central theme is that students are residents of this wonderful region and in recognising their contributions the combined authority should commit to specific policy interventions to ensure their success.

How good it was

Housing has been a primary focus of the partnership since its formation. Our belief is that housing in Greater Manchester is at crisis point with accommodation often expensive, unsuitable, and housing stock is misaligned to the needs of students. In standards we are asking any future mayor to accelerate progress toward a Good Landlord Charter which will hold landlords to greater account for their properties. Strategically, we are asking a future mayor to include students directly within the Greater Manchester housing strategy. Student homes are sometimes temporary but that doesn’t mean they should be terrible. Housing should sit at the heart of any strategy on quality of life, cost of living, and retaining students.

Housing is a basic need for our students as is their safety in the region. We neither subscribe to a model that sees students as powerless in their own advocacy for more rights nor do we believe that any one partner can solve the panoply of student safety concerns. We want the new mayor to set up a specific, time-limited, and consultative task force on student safety involving students, universities, the combined authority, and the wide range of services involved in crime prevention and harm reduction. We want to use the convening powers of the Region to put students in front of decision makers.

And finally we want any new mayor to emphasise the importance of connectedness. The City Region has bus franchising powers more extensive than anywhere outside of London. It is not beyond the imagination of any new mayor to commit to a student rate for all bus travel for all students. Cheap transport is not only good for students, it is good for the economy to allow more people to travel to more places and experience all that Greater Manchester has to offer.

And in our push to recognise our student residents, as well, residents, we are keen to learn from work like the Greater Manchester Student Mental Health Hub which collates and connects resources. Any future mental health strategy for the region should consider students and what we can learn from the work going on.

Love spreads

Our full manifesto is now published. In setting out our stall we are hoping to not only influence politics across Greater Manchester but build on the momentum we’ve developed on the past year as a collection of unions that can achieve great things by pooling our resources, insights, and collective power.

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