In response to a recent blog post by Sir Richard Leese, we’ve been asking local groups to share their experiences of working with Manchester City Council. Sir Richard Leese says the council are open to working with any parties interested in environmental and development issues. This is the fourth article in a Meteor series called Civic Participation in Manchester.
For the past month, we’ve heard from a diverse range of local groups and campaigners about their experience working with Manchester City Council. This has covered local neighbourhood issues, specific campaigns, and reflections from long-time activists on their overall experiences. This week, we hear from Trees Not Cars, The Friends of Ryebank Fields, Friends of Angel Meadow, Greater Manchester Housing Action, WalkRide, and the Northern Quarter Residents Forum. This will be the last instalment of contributions from campaigners. Next we’ll be asking the council whether they’d like to respond to the series.
If you’re a group who would like to tell us about your experience working with the Council, please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org as there may be other opportunities to share your story.
Name: Julia Kovaliova
Representing: Trees Not Cars
Our ‘Trees Not Cars’ campaign is against the development of a car park on the former Central Retail Park site situated right next to the primary school.
The plans for the car park were revealed straight after Manchester City Council declared a Climate Emergency in July 2019. The Council has also been advising how to take the correct approach regarding the effects of pollution on local children via numerous tweets and other social media posts.
Unfortunately, what we have seen contradicts such claims and advice. The Council has approved the planning application to build a 24/7 440-space car park encouraging more cars to drive and park in the city centre.
It was especially disappointing that the Council shared very little information about the application with the residents. The approach taken was similar to what we also know about the potential development on the New Islington Green area (also in Ancoats). The residents – who will be directly affected by the approval – were practically excluded from this decision-making process.
This is why we ran our campaign: to raise awareness among the local community about this apparent contradiction between the Council’s own green policies and its profit-driven approach to our public spaces.
Utilising the local media, including BBC Radio, Channel 4, The Meteor, Manchester Confidential and MEN, we advised the residents to read about the car park planning application and share their views or objections. As a result, our petition against the development of the car park was signed by 11,340 residents.
We hoped it would be enough to encourage the Council to stick with its own green policy and reject its plans to convert the area near a primary school into a large 440-space car park.
What gave us hope was that in the days before the approval, in his blog post How Green Is My City, Sir Richard Leese called for “practical, deliverable solutions that have support across all our communities to tackle a fundamental issue” [of pollution in Manchester].
However, at our meeting with Leese before the Planning and Highways Committee, we learned that his actual view was in line with that of the other councillors who had expressed voting for the development of the car park. He said the space “has always been a car park”, and thus “the effect [on the community] from the temporary two-year use will not be significant.”
As a resident of Ancoats, I am shouting out loud for the Council to hear – this area is not the same as even 3 years ago. It’s a huge vibrant community with people who chose the city centre as their home. We need green space to be kept and more to be developed for us to relax and enjoy.
As a parent of a child with asthma, I demand the Council accept the statistics of child respiratory illnesses in Manchester as a scary fact that needs urgent attention. Another car park in a largely family-populated area with schools and nurseries is not the right step.
Our question remains: would our Council ever consider the needs expressed by its residents, involve them into the prior-master planning of the areas proposed for potential developments before they are put for voting? Or would it continue to ignore its own green policies and jeopardise the health of our children?
Name: Nigel Woodcock
Representing: The Friends of Ryebank Fields
We are The Friends of Ryebank Fields, the people who love the ancient greenfield site that bears this name and who want Manchester City Council (MCC) to abandon trying to cover it with the housing development plan that it has adopted in conjunction with landowning charity Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Local people remember that in 1972 when the land was first gifted to MMU, it was under a Covenant that it only be used for Sports and Recreation.
The land lies on the border of Manchester and Trafford and the ‘consultation’ ignored those residents in neighbouring Stretford who are equally affected by the plan. Local Manchester residents directly affected by the already chronic congestion in the area felt unable to express their views during the process but when local Councillor, John Hacking, took this problem to a Manchester Council Executive it was summarily dismissed. MCC’s ‘consultation’ concluded that local people were against building 70 executive homes, but was that number too high or too low? They couldn’t tell, so they increased their vision to 120 mixed-tenure homes, including some ‘affordable’ housing!
When Friends of Ryebank Fields met with Eddie Smith, MCC’s Director of Development Strategy in January 2018, he told us: “My job is to make money”. He revealed that MCC had made £10 million from the recent development of MMU land in Didsbury and stood to do similar in Chorlton. When we raised the Recreation and Sports Covenant issue, Eddie said he would help us to find it but that, if it did exist, he “would take steps to have it extinguished”. He went on to describe how MCC would overrule any attempt by Trafford Council to block access from the Stretford side of the land. How can the Council make such statements and then claim that a fair planning enquiry is being conducted?
Throughout our campaign to Save Ryebank Fields we have been told, repeatedly, that its development is necessary to help combat Manchester’s housing crisis. Why then has Cllr Suzanne Richards, Executive Member for Housing and Regeneration, stated in an email we have seen that figures from June 2019 show that MCC is exceeding its Local Housing Need target by 5,434 homes. And how many empty properties are there in Manchester?
So far, our experience is of a Council trying to steer a course that ensures the conclusion they want. But they must be very confused indeed. Council Leader Sir Richard Leese writes in his blog “Our zero-carbon city still needs more homes and more jobs and the most sustainable way of providing for those is through dense development on brownfield sites close to public transport nodes. The alternative is concreting over greenfield sites for what would be very car dependent development.” Let us help you on that one. Ryebank Fields is green, and we want to work with the Council to ensure it stays that way and continues to be a much valued community resource. Another world is possible.
Name: Richard Paul Long
Representing: Friends of Angel Meadow (Secretary)
Each generation of Mancunian politician has had a vision for change: compiling reports, holding “consultations” and nodding sagely that this time lessons have been learnt.
Nobody has stood beside more PowerPoint presentations and marketing imagery than the current leader. Nobody has spent more time in champagne-soaked Global Dragon’s Dens to promote the latest vision. Nobody else has overseen such public funding utilised to kick-start many of these hubristic schemes that skew their value.
It’s 20 years since development around Angel Meadow began (itself a 1770s vision). Those 20 years have seen repopulation of the city and development of a “New Town” with 3000+ homes built, including the Green Quarter.
However, promises to regenerate Angel Meadow Park go unfulfilled. The onus to realise the development has been transferred to future purchasers with no completion date in sight. Moreover, its completion has been held to ransom by speculated pre-2008 value and a rigid adherence to visions not necessarily embraced by the market.
There remains no new schools, hospitals, nor increase in green space, with long term issues of poor policing and neighbourhood management unresolved.
Most of the original impassioned owner-occupiers have long since moved on, fed up with waiting for amenities and effective management to be delivered, replaced by transient disinterested residents and absentee landlords. The catastrophic daily health implications of high-density construction and concerns to the longer-term viability of rebuilding a failed Victorian streetscape to a greater density than Engels’ “Hell on earth” diminish community further.
Lived-experience has been ignored over the opinions of office-based architects. Frustration has been compounded particularly when contradictions of planning policy, bad working practice and monetary waste have been exposed. “Consultation” has long been seen as box-ticking exercises or testing the animosity towards more grandiose schemes.
We have little experience of alternative views being seriously considered, especially when it contradicts those of favoured architects or when the preferred views/plans are perceived to lead to short-term financial gain.
There is much knowledge, expertise and passion in the city that remains outside the inner sanctum of the Executive. Engagement has improved with local representatives recently, but dogmatic urban design has built insular and detached neighbourhoods and much of the planning damage is already done.
As with each generation, economic bust is inevitable. Community is what gets left behind to salvage the wreckage. The danger is community never develops in the first place; its presence or absence will determine the legacy of the current boom and the wisdom of its decision-makers.
Name: Isaac Rose
Representing: Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA)
Overall, I would say that GMHA has had decent engagement from the Council, although with some notable exceptions.
Good instances of dialogue and communication have been:
- The Renters Forum (2018) – Attended by many MCC councillors, including Cllr Pat Karney
- Housing Futures project – Positive engagement with Cllr Suzanne Richards, Executive Member for Housing, and Jon Sawyer, the Council’s Director of Housing and Residential Growth, with this work, as well as with other figures from the Council, such as Cllr Bev Craig (see our interview here).
- Airbnb taskforce – The Council have made noises of engagement with us over this, though full details yet to be sketched out as to what MCC are up to.
Instances where we have had more negative experiences of engagement include:
- The Council’s attempts to smear Dr Jon Silver’s professional reputation in light of his research on housing. You can read more about that here.
- Broad concerns about civic engagement – Many communities feel like they aren’t listened to by the Council, with a recent example being the ‘Trees Not Cars’ campaign. However, historically many working-class communities in Manchester have felt like the Council wants them out – for more about this, watch this documentary by youth-leadership and social change charity RECLAIM.
Name: Claire Stocks
Representing: WalkRide Greater Manchester
I’m one of a group of people who last year set up WalkRide Greater Manchester to campaign for better walking cycling and public transport in the city region. One of our goals is for our urban centres to be designed and built around people, not cars – and specifically, we are campaigning for Manchester’s showpiece shopping street, Deansgate, to become traffic-free.
Earlier this year, one of our group came up with a proposal to turn Deansgate over to a large ‘open streets’ event on the longest day of the year, for people to be able to try it out as a traffic-free zone, with fun activities such as yoga, picnics and five a side – as well as to learn more about ‘active travel’. We called our idea the People’s Takeover and asked for meetings with the council, TfGM and the Walking and Cycling Beelines team to progress it.
This coalition of groups were ostensibly enthusiastic, so we adapted the proposal to meet everyone’s requirements – and then asked what we’d need to do to make it happen. We even found an agreed source of funding. What then followed were weeks and then months of stop/ start mixed messages and dead ends.
We pushed the date back once – but settled on Clean Air weekend in September as a great time to turn Deansgate over to people, not cars. However, the confusion continued to the point in early August, with just weeks to go, we felt we had to pull the plug as we’d run out of time to hold a credible event.
Those of us in WalkRide are still unsure what exactly stymied this plan, which seemed to meet the city’s travel strategy and provide a positive way to engage people in the message, with lots of goodwill and work being offered for free by campaigners. Crucially, it would have given the city’s leaders the chance to show a tangible action since declaring a climate emergency in July.
We know we had lots to learn and undoubtedly there’ll always be complexities of which we’ll be unaware…fair enough. But we still don’t know. We’ve never been told what scuppered the idea, other than a vague sense of some bigger picture which remained invisible to us.
The story does not end there however.
Some weeks after the People’s Takeover plan was scrapped, on the last Friday in August about 500 or so Extinction Rebellion protestors occupied Deansgate in order to highlight continued inaction on climate emergency. I was one of them.
As a result of the action, there was a surge in public support towards permanently closing Deansgate. As a result I started a petition – which gained 2000 signatures in less than two weeks. The MEN ran a story asking ‘was it time for Deansgate to be pedestrianised?’ In this story, Manchester City Council seemed to grasp the opportunity – announcing, it seemed, that yes indeed the street would be pedestrianised, but that the council had to wait until they’d ‘sorted a plan for buses’.
Almost three months have come and gone since this announcement with no further news.
Having worked in the public sector, I know it can be a slow business, but we are after all in an emergency, and this is an easy win that would send exactly the right signal – that action is being taken. Meanwhile, Leese wrote his blog saying ‘we’re interested in practical, deliverable solutions’ and ‘we are open to working with anybody who wants to join us in that task’. Yet WalkRideGM’s follow-up request (not to Leese) for a meeting to discuss further ideas for a staged approach to pedestrianising Deansgate, was declined and we were instead directed to speak to the Deansgate Labour councillors.
They have conducted a survey on what residents felt about the closure (which will undoubtedly be supportive) so perhaps there are moves afoot and the council want pedestrianisation to come about organically (fine, if only we weren’t in an emergency…). We at WalkRide believe that considerable work has been done on options for pedestrianising Deansgate, e.g. through the Streets for All project.
But Manchester City Council has declined to share this work, saying it’s ‘unfinished’. And that is exactly the point – we do not want to see work when it is finished! We want to be able to see it, talk about it, influence it beforehand.
A good litmus test is coming up. The council is writing a new city centre transport strategy. To create the strategy officers are embarking on a ‘stakeholder engagement and co-design exercise’ to gather input over the next two months. WalkRideGM wrote to ask to take part in this engagement piece because we are ready and waiting to offer our ‘ideas for practical, deliverable solutions’ – and we have received an invitation.
We urge others with a stake in the city centre transport strategy, to do the same. So please hear us Manchester City Council; we ask for only two things: Genuine dialogue – and outcomes consistent with the council’s own stated strategy.
In return we offer ideas, help, enthusiasm and expertise. For free.
Read a longer version of this post on Claire’s blog.
Name: Joanne Cross
Representing: Northern Quarter Residents Forum
We have had mixed experience working with the Council, depending on the specific initiative or issue. Overall, our local councillors are approachable and eager to help, and Compliance are doing their best with not enough staff. Heritage, Planning and Waste Management matters remain frustrating. Here we’ll focus on a few examples.
Our experience with the Manchester City Centre Neighbourhoods Team has been positive. They funded insurance and equipment for the Stevenson Square Clean Air Day closure and hop plants for us to take part in the Manchester Hop Project. Working with the Neighbourhoods Team has shown us that, due to the lack of council funding, the way forward is to encourage community action and volunteering.
Commercial waste is a big problem throughout in the Northern Quarter as it is elsewhere in the city. We drew up a plan of action for the Executive Committee and had walkabouts with the members and officers concerned. The centre of Stevenson Square, Carpenters Lane, Hare Street and Copperas Street have been vastly improved since these suggestions were made.
However, we feel that had it not been for our intervention nothing would have changed. The problem continues elsewhere, probably due to the lack of compliance staff.
We have met with Sir Richard Leese and Cllr Stogia on a few occasions. It’s easy to be critical and much harder to be constructive. They both have huge responsibilities which in any other form of life would require a CV that would match the task. They find themselves, as do others, in very demanding posts which require leadership skills. In the meetings they listened and showed interest.
We met Leese to try and seek his endorsement of a ‘green lung’ running through the NQ, from Lever Street to Thomas Street We sought his encouragement for a plan to turn the rooftop of the Thomas Street car park into a public park.
We believed it was a great scheme and had the support of the MMU architecture department. The plans were drawn, and there was a clear vision. The problem was it wasn’t Leese’s vision. What we got instead was fifty metres of a road closure on Thomas St, the sole purpose of which seems to be to stop drunks being knocked down.
Here’s another example. We initially asked Cllr Stogia to use her influence as a Director of NCP Manchester to help us obtain the roof of the NCP car park for an evening event. She did get us an introduction to NCP. They demanded payment and every last bit of red tape to be used which put the scheme beyond our grasp. So we asked for a road closure.
The city’s two football teams seem to be able to get the wheels of the council to turn quickly but for us they barely turned at all; it took over a month to get a response of any sort and then approval for half the scheme. Eventually, after we applied real pressure, we got approval but with only 9 days to organise a huge event. We got the blame for the inevitable traffic jams caused by the council’s incompetence. They like us had days to organise signage but they did nothing, it was almost as though they wanted it to fail.
You can read about our experience of Central Retail Park in Julia Kovaliova’s contribution on behalf of Trees Not Cars above.
We’ve been particularly disappointed by some of our interactions with senior officers. Pat Karney is the “City Centre Spokesperson” and blocked Northern Quarter Residents Forum on social media for a while. Leese declared on social media about Northern Quarter Forum “there has been no direct communication asking me anything ever.” See above.
Read the previous installments of the Civic Participation in Manchester series here.
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