Nestled in a quiet and refreshingly green corner of south Manchester, campaigners have taken up camp as an act of rebellion against development of this wild green space. The group Save RyeBank Fields have joined forces with Extinction Rebellion and Animal Rebellion to show Manchester Metropolitan University that they are putting everything they have into this campaign.
In the 1970’s Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) was gifted the 10 acres of green space between Longford Park and Great Stone Road, by Manchester City Council, so they could use it as sports fields. In 1996 MMU decided to move their sports facilities to Carrington, leaving the fields to rewild and flourish with plants and wildlife.
The campaign groups, supporting the many local residents opposing the development, want the green space to be given back to Manchester City Council and then in turn to the community the land was originally intended to serve. Paul Harnett, a member of Save RyeBank Fields who is a local resident and an active green space campaigner, said:
“We’re here now because the information we have is that the sale is going ahead in the next few weeks. If MMU said they would return the land to the community and let it continue as a wild space, we would disappear tomorrow. We’re putting MMU in a very difficult position because I doubt any developer would want to buy the land with an Extinction Rebellion, the community and Animal Rebellion camp on there.”
The group set up their camp on 18 April 2021. A month later The Meteor visited the camp, where 20 people have set up tents on the contentious site.
“We’re going to stay here for as long as it takes,” said Amy Payton Edwards, who has been at the camp from the very beginning and is an active member of Extinction Rebellion.
Manchester Metropolitan University plans to sell the site to developers who want to build more than 70 homes there. This would lead to the destruction of the ecosystem supporting plants, insects, birds, and animal species. The land has become a hunting ground for many rare species of birds including sparrow hawks. The Save RyeBank Fields group approached MMU to see why they are selling the land. They were told by the financial team that they are obliged to maximise the profits of the University. Paul says RyeBank Fields have become an asset to the university business who are, “putting money before environment or education.”
Former MMU student and Environmental Scientist, *Tom said: “I went to MMU and spoke to my old tutor who is pretty high up in the Ecology department. He agreed with what we have been saying about the value of this place. For a sustainable, ecology, and motivated environmental department that wants to promote themselves as being at the forefront of developing science in this field.
“They could use this site as a valuable educational tool. Why not get students to come down here and see? He’s said the same thing and he’s had it out with the vice-chancellor, but they are not listening to him. It’s a shame.”
The university prides itself on being a green and sustainable institution and even boast on their website that they are “proud to be a leading university for sustainability.” This protest by environmental groups puts their sustainability credentials under scrutiny.
When The Meteor shared Tom’s quote with MMU, they issued the following statement:
“The University is currently in the process of selling RyeBank Fields for residential development. The successful developer will be responsible for preparing a planning application to be submitted to the Council for further consideration. The application will set out the precise scale and form of any development. This will be subject to further consultation to ascertain the views of the local community.”
Representatives from MMU have been down to the site and had a chat with camp members and everything has been cordial so far.
The University’s cordial visit did not convince camp member *Skeet, of Animal Rebellion, to curtail his protest. “We’re in an emergency, any new developments need to be stopped now. Any green field sites like this need to be protected. We need to be rewilding and not building houses that we don’t need.”
The main concern of the activists and local residents fighting to keep this site unchanged is the environment and the species of animals that inhabit the area. The giant Poplar trees that border Longford park form a picturesque part of a bio-diverse area. A haven for wildlife and humans trying to escape the urban environment that surrounds Ryebank Fields. So far, the campers have seen an array of birds from blackcaps, woodpeckers and sparrow hawks. Baby foxes and even muntjac – a small species of deer – have also been spotted.
“You might look at this and think what’s one more field? But to the birds and the creatures and the plants, it’s not just one field, it’s where they live,” said Tom.
“If you camp here in the morning you’ve never heard bird song like it. It’s incredible” said Bruce Murphy of Animal Rebellion.
The camp was as calm as you could imagine, considering it was a direct-action protest. The group had set up a dining tent and a fire pit with a selection of colourful tents nearby. If it were not for the looming skyscrapers that peak over the trees in the distance you would not know you were so close to Manchester City Centre. Local dog walkers greeted the group with a wave and some stopped to chat, asking if they needed anything.
A local boy of eight called Alejandro has been bringing the campers coffee every morning. He has been engaging with the group and learning about the environment. When asked about the area Alejandro said, “the field is a nice place because it is full of nature and so beautiful. You can climb trees and that’s really fun!”
Homecooked evening meals are being delivered every evening. “We are being really well looked after,” Skeet said.
Tara Parry, press officer for Save RyeBank Fields, is in daily contact with the group. “When these guys came, I wasn’t sure how the local community was going to react. [But] there are always people here. They come and they chat. These guys can teach them. They have been welcomed with open arms; it’s been really positive.”
The group have decided to limit the number of campers to keep their “human footprint low”. They have the full support of many from the local community and have ready and willing local residence to supports protests if they need them. Over the past three years, MMU has tried to close the fields twice by putting up metal fencing. Save RyeBank Fields had a group of more than 80 protestors gather to stop them erecting the fences. The group have also staged a trespass event that had 250 people take part.
It is not just the wildlife and trees that the campaigners are concerned about. After MMU started to access the site to do gas investigations, asbestos was found on the land by one of the members of the Save RyeBank Fields group. Further investigations done by MMU have found that the site has asbestos under the surface. Walking around is fine and would not disturb it, but digging might.
The site was previously known as the “clay pits”. Between the 1930s – 1970s, it was an unofficial dump. Tara talked about what is rumoured to be below the surface of the fields. Excavations from building the Arndale are said to be buried there. In the 1970s two lorries per day were coming to dump their loads on the site. The remains of old air raid shelters are also said to be buried there.
The activists have real concerns about how developers will be able to safely get rid of toxic material without it damaging the school children or neighbouring homes. St John’s School’s playground borders the fields.
And then there are the floods, a growing concern in our increasingly extreme weather, caused by climate change. The area acts as a sponge for sudden downpours. When Storm Christopher hit earlier in the year, the people in the close vicinity were told to pack a bag and get ready to evacuate. If RyeBank fields hadn’t been there to absorb some of the water, what would have happened to those homes?
When asked what they would like to say to MMU, Paul said: “Surely you should review your decision. Why don’t you become world experts in remediating toxic land? We would love to partner up with world experts to find out what to do with land like this. And keep it for the community. Keep it beautiful.”
Amy, who is an activist and artist talked of her plans for what they want to use the space for. She has engaged daily, with residents, speaking to them about what they would like to see and do. Together with the other campers, she is putting together a schedule of workshops that will be available to local people. They have plans for sound workshops, scavenger hunts, yoga, and more. “Green spaces like this are vital for our mental and physical health,” she said. This Friday 21 May the group have organised a Women’s night walk to reclaim the streets and show solidarity.
*Tom and Skeet did not wish their full names to be used
For more information on Save RyeBank Fields and how you can get involved – click here
For more information on Extinction Rebellion – click here
Feature image and all in article images: Judith Suckling