With the city-region mayoral elections fast approaching, a spate of hustings began last month. The first, staged by the built environment industry website Place North West, invited the three candidates deemed worthy of a platform. This meant podiums for Conservative Sean Anstee, Liberal Democrat Jane Brophy and Labour’s Andy Burnham.

In fitting with the theme, they fielded questions on topics from greenbelt to the recently published draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) plan. Although the opening exchanges were almost cordial, political sniping soon reared its head and gaps appeared between the candidates’ ethics, as Anstee played to the audience’s preference for profitable development over issues of social justice and balancing inequalities. Anstee’s was an argument for continuing the growth agenda trend for city competition as encouraged by the EU Territorial Agenda. Burnham, by contrast, spoke of inclusive growth, which is itself a fuzzy term in reality, and was keen to highlight transport spending gaps between London (£6 per head) and Manchester (£1 per head), vouching for an east-west rail line ahead of Crossrail 2.

The devolution agreement offers powers to integrate the city-regional transport system, which all agree is in dire need of addressing. In Burnham’s case, he’s pledging free young person travel passes and pro-cycling infrastructure. Burnham offered a UCAS system for local apprenticeships while the others remained vague about how they would address skills and training.

As often is the case with planning and the built environment sector, proposed consultation methods and tactics divided opinion. Brophy favoured greater local community interaction, while Anstee described a need to ‘win arguments’ in our communities – essentially, to influence opinions. Burnham’s emphasis was on public ownership of the new mayoral system in all regards. The biggest applause of the evening went to Anstee’s advocacy of more urban sprawl to relieve ‘squashed communities’, which was in stark contrast to both Brophy’s greenbelt safeguarding and Burnham’s stress on the need to revive the region’s satellite town centres through brownfield redevelopment, rather than building £1m valued homes in the commuter belt.

Beyond the vacuous rhetoric and self-aggrandising double speak, there were hints of genuinely radical innovations that might have the potential to genuinely change the political landscape. Brophy pitched the growing idea of Whitehall moving up north during Westminster renovation work, echoed in a recent Economist article and adapted by Tom Arnold in his article re-published with this issue, while Burnham pledged 15% of his mayoral wage to start a homelessness funding pot.

It was also pitched during a question from the floor that issues such as social care could be improved by way of voluntary taxation increases by the wealthy – of which there were presumably many in the room, given the development sector’s salary bands. It’s unlikely that such an idea would gain traction in a room that applauded low-density, high-profit sprawl into the greenbelt and in the wider context of 30 years of neoliberal policy, but it did give Burnham a chance to reiterate his previously touted suggestion that an increase in inheritance tax should be a direct funding avenue towards social care.

How far these will be delivered remains to be seen, but you can judge for yourself. There’s still a chance before 4 May to see first-hand the pledges, put-downs and power-brokering of the candidates in the race, as several local groups, from campaigners to industry publications, are set to host debates.

Here is a rundown of some of the groups involved with hustings events, all free to attend:

Tue 28 March | Midland Hotel | 5.30-7pm
Asking how candidates will approach business and the local economy – link.

Thu 30 March | MMU Business School | 6.15-8.30pm
Exactly what it says on the tin – link.

Mon 3 April | St Philip’s Chapel, Salford | 6-8pm
Greater Manchester Housing Action present a hustings aiming to address the area’s homelessness crisis – link.

Wed 5 April | Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce | 5.30-7.30pm
“A hustings for candidates to set out their plans to drive growth in the city-region” – link.

But this hustings line-up represents the three-party system so often dictating the narratives and agendas set in Whitehall. Should the mayoral race succumb to the same old party colours and archetypes? In a landscape of divergent politics and less predictable voting, other parties’ candidates are stepping up for future hustings, including Will Patterson (Green), Shneur Odze (UKIP) and Stephen Morris (English Democrat).

Agendas such as growth for its own sake continually take centre stage, but groups are taking issue with this, such as Steady State, who are the people behind the People’s Plan. Whoever wins the race, their manifestos will be tested by the People’s Plan, which is nearing completion based on the feedback received from the many public consultation events held towards the end of last year across the city-region. The group seeks to influence the aims and ambitions of the incumbent mayor based on this variety of voices.

There have also been messages and manifestoes put out by other groups, such as the Disabled Peoples Manifesto and a group aiming to represent older people.

Although some opportunities to quiz the candidates have been and gone, you can see the feedback and event videos for Place North West, as well as LGBT Foundation (25 February, People’s History Museum), Voluntary, Community & Social Enterprise (7 March, St Thomas Centre) and Women’s Equality Party (8 March, Salford Civic Centre).

The mayoral election is scheduled for 4 May 2017. If you’re not already signed up to the electoral register, you can register to vote at gov.uk/register-to-vote

Ian Pennington