THE one thing that everybody agreed on after Britain’s divisive vote to leave the European Union was that the country was far too centralised. Both Leavers and Remainers recognised that Brexit was partly a vote against London’s dominance. Journalists, most of whom had thought Remain would win in a walk, confessed that they knew nothing about large chunks of their country. Theresa May promised to reach out to people who felt left behind. Editors ordered their minions to visit the provinces.

Today the problem of centralisation is worse than ever. Westminster and Whitehall are even more inward-looking. Mrs May’s policies for helping the left-behind have not buttered a single parsnip. A few lonely journalists are continuing to make good on their promise to get out more. But most newspapers are more interested in the drama in Downing Street (and Brussels) than in the fate of the regions. One of the many paradoxes of Brexit is that a movement that was driven by frustration with London-centric politics has made politics even more London-centric.

Andy Burnham, who was elected Labour mayor of Greater Manchester in May 2017, when the government created six regional mayoralties, spends his life grappling with this paradox. He believes that Brexit was as much a revolt against Westminster as against Brussels. He also argues that devolution is the best way of making government more intelligent, as well as more accountable, because it shortens the feedback loop between problems and solutions. He is as well-equipped as anyone to negotiate between London and the regions, having held three national cabinet posts under Gordon Brown, including health secretary, and having served as Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow home secretary. He also has deep roots in the north. He won his job with 63% of the vote, and likes nothing more than talking about his education at a Catholic comprehensive in Liverpool and his love of Everton football club. Yet even this amphibious creature, part professional northerner, part Westminster insider, is having trouble getting himself heard above the Brexit hubbub.

As mayor, Mr Burnham is advancing on three fronts. He acts as ambassador for his region and, indeed, for England’s regions in general (this week he was in Brussels along with other English mayors to talk about Brexit). He co-ordinates activities that have historically been fragmented between competing local councils. And he focuses resources and attention on a handful of defining issues: education, particularly skills; regional development, particularly transport; and homelessness. He is especially vocal about homelessness, donating 15% of his £110,000 ($154,000) salary to homelessness charities.

One of the striking things about Mr Burnham’s city is the number of billboards bearing the legend “End homelessness”. Another striking thing is how many rough sleepers there are. Rough sleeping has actually got worse since Mr Burnham became mayor, rising by more than 20% over the past year, but it is not for lack of trying. Mr Burnham points out that homelessness is a national problem that is caused by a noxious combination of insecure jobs and insecure private rental accommodation. It has been rising across Britain. He also points out that homeless people naturally gravitate to cities. Manchester’s problems can be seen in Brighton and London.

Mr Burnham is doing admirable work in co-ordinating the tangle of charities through his new Homelessness Action Network. He also recognises that the problem is driven by behavioural issues as well as housing shortages. Manchester is experimenting with halfway houses that not only provide rough sleepers with accommodation, but also help them put their lives back together by teaching them to stick to regular routines and connecting them with training programmes.

Advocates of devolution have always argued that it would be self-reinforcing—the more problems that mayors could solve, the more pressure they would be able to put on the central government to devolve more power. Mr Burnham has discovered that local problem-solving applies in a surprising area: terrorism. His mayorship has been defined more than anything by the bomb that went off in the Manchester Arena last May, murdering 22 people, 17 days after he was elected. The bomber had grown up in Manchester. Mr Burnham worries that Britain’s national security agencies are overwhelmingly London-focused, when the roots of domestic terrorism are often local. The best way to deal with Manchester’s problems is to tap local knowledge and design local solutions, he says.

Magnetic south

This is not to say that the new mayor is wholly negative about Conservative-run Westminster and Whitehall. He points out that Philip Hammond, the chancellor, earmarked money for northern transport in his most recent budget. He singles out Greg Clark, the business secretary, and Sajid Javid, the housing secretary, for praise. But he thinks that devolution is not delivering as much as it should. He criticises Justine Greening, the former education secretary, for acting as a “block on progress”, particularly when it came to devolving control over adult education. He worries above all that Mrs May is incapable of telling a compelling story about the case for devolution.

That is an understatement. The problem is not just the story but the reality. The political class is still heavily concentrated in London. Jeremy Corbyn presides over the most London-centric Labour Party ever. Seven of the shadow cabinet represent seats in London, three of which border Mr Corbyn’s own seat of Islington North. The Treasury hijacked devolution as a way of devolving responsibility for making cuts, while keeping the power to make policy. Mr Burnham complains: “There is no point in bringing power back from Brussels only to hand it over to London.” So far, it looks as if that is exactly what is going to happen.