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Sir Richard Leese says ‘we are open to working with anybody’ – we asked campaign groups what they thought (pt.1)

A recent blog post by Sir Richard Leese suggested the city council was doing well in its work to address the climate emergency and its handling of development issues in the city. He also said that they were willing to work with any parties interested in these issues. Seven people, representing different interest groups in Manchester describe their experience of engaging with the council. This is the first article in a Meteor series called Civic Participation in Manchester.

Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, in his recent blog post ‘How Green is My City’ summarised his positive opinion of how well the city is doing in addressing its recently declared climate emergency. The post seems to have been aimed at “those who point the finger at the Council” and criticise the council’s record on dealing with environmental and development issues in the city.

At the end of his post, Sir Richard Leese writes:

“What we are interested in is practical, deliverable solutions that have support across all our communities to tackle a fundamental issue. We are open to working with anybody who wants to join us in that task.”

This article is the first in a Civic Participation in Manchester mini-series, where we are asking campaigners and local groups to comment on this last statement and share their experience of how easy or difficult it is to work with the Council.

Our intention is to open up a debate on the state of public engagement and consultation in the city, at a time of rapid change. To round up the series we will provide an analysis of the responses. First we let individual campaigners and groups speak for themselves. Here are the first seven:

Sir Richard Leese

Sir Richard Leese’s blog post


Name: Tudor Baker

Representing: Green Drinks Manchester and Greater Manchester Climate Action Network

At Green Drinks Manchester and Greater Manchester Climate Action Network (GMCAN), we want to work with the council to seek out ways to engage with the public and campaign groups in order to identify opportunities to enact meaningful change.

In fairness to them, back in June we did secure a meeting with Manchester City Council’s executive member for environment, councillor Angeliki Stogia. We had arranged the meeting as a follow-up to our open letter encouraging the council to declare a climate emergency (which they did a few weeks later). We discussed what could happen next (post-declaration) with an emphasis on building public support and participation. We talked about possible models of public education and participation, including community development approaches and the challenge of securing funding for this. We also touched on the need for funding for the massive changes required, for example for insulation retrofit to homes and other buildings.

At the time, GMCAN saw the meeting as constructive and a useful starting point in a long term partnership. Looking back, however, it was not as successful as we had hoped and our later attempts to meet up with Councillor Stogia were met with “Councillor Stogia’s diary is extremely busy at the moment”. If Councillor Stogia (or any other for that matter) had met up with us, then we might have been able to get across the serious environmental flaws in the car park and road redevelopment in Ancoats.

Fundamentally, for me Leese’s blog post was all but nullified by the outlandish claim that “parked cars are zero emissions” (a coal fired power plant is zero emissions, until you turn it on). On the other hand, it is good to see Sir Richard reach out to groups and I hope there is substance in his words as so far we have not seen the council deliver on promises such as this.

The car park and the road redevelopment in Ancoats are hugely disappointing from an environmental point of view, but they also show the council’s lack of desire to act on their emergency declaration. Every campaign group wants to get the ear of politicians and drive policy, but after pushing for the emergency declaration just to see it ignored when decisions are made, much of us are left wondering… why bother.

 

Name: Beth Rose Hopper

Representing: Castlefield Forum

The Castlefield Forum has a long and established relationship with Manchester City Council (MCC). MCC have supported, facilitated and on many occasions made resources available for the work and projects carried out by Castlefield Forum. The longevity and positive nature of our partnership with MCC affords the Forum the ability to access support and resources with relative ease – not least because we already know how to navigate the many complex organisational levels within MCC.

Similarly, on many occasions MCC have approached the Forum to make us aware of grants, initiatives and funding which we are able to take advantage of. The Forum has been approached on many occasions by other community groups asking for advice on how to access the support and resources MCC makes available. Similarly, due to the continually increasing number of members on our database and via our social media reach, MCC often request the help of the Forum to disseminate information to local residents and businesses on behalf of the council.

Going forward, MCC should continue to refine the ways in which it engages with its communities; making the process of information sharing and garnering public opinion as proactively straightforward as possible. Using the Forum as a model for relationship building, this approach demonstrates how a united approach can achieve realistic successful goals.

With specific regards to the environmental challenges we are facing globally, much of the Forum’s work has focussed on maintaining and enhancing some of the last remaining city centre green spaces in and around Castlefield. Our unique green areas are one of Manchester’s greatest assets and their contribution to the provision of a cleaner environment should not be understated.

 

Name: Sam Tate

Representing:  Independent cycling campaigner

I have been trying to contact the council regarding cycling improvements on resurfacing jobs. We now know that narrow painted cycle lanes are more dangerous than simply painting nothing. When a road is being resurfaced, markings have to be repainted from scratch, so it is a negligible cost to repaint the cycle lanes a little wider. A general traffic lane doesn’t need to be more than 3.1-3.25m wide to accommodate buses and lorries, so any extra space should go to widening the cycle lanes. Back in June, a stretch of Stretford Road was being resurfaced so I suggested we narrow the carriageway lanes to widen the cycle lanes. Unfortunately the works were carried out and the existing dangerous cycle lanes painted back on, and I was told I was too late. I asked how I could be involved earlier in the future but never received a reply.

More recently, another stretch of Stretford Road was being resurfaced. I sent similar suggestions, and again was met with the same response, that it was too late. 11 days after my email, the cycle lanes were painted back in their narrow form. To me, 11 days seems more than enough time to agree to paint the lines a little further out. Furthermore, over a month later, these are still the only markings to be repainted. The double yellow lines, bus stops, etc have still not been done. So why was it so urgent we repaint dangerously narrow cycle lanes if these other lines can wait a month? Gravel from the resurfacing has been left in the cycle lanes for over a month too, rendering them unusable.

Of course Highways really should be looking into this themselves without having to be prompted. It’s a free opportunity to marginally improve road conditions for vulnerable road users. Trafford Council have committed to not repainting dangerously narrow cycle lanes.

Again, I sent an email  [to MCC] asking how I can be involved earlier, so these changes can be made, and over three weeks later I have still received no reply from Highways. It’s incredibly hard to communicate with MCC Highways: councillors are definitely quick to reply, forward messages, and suggest contacts – but highways don’t seem to take any suggestions on board unfortunately. I’d love to work with MCC to improve things but I don’t feel it’s made easy.

 

Name: Mark Burton

Representing: Steady State Manchester

The council wants to work with citizens and some insiders are particularly interested in doing this.  However, it is in the implementation of this desire that problems arise.  We can illustrate this from our own experience.

We attended the Economy Scrutiny committee several years ago and presented on alternatives to economic growth.  This led to a short-life subgroup being set up on sustainability and we attended those meetings.  While it was clear that our post-growth orientation was at odds with the council’s economic model of “seek investment, build, grow and assume trickle down”, we found the meetings exploratory and open with a number of perspectives discussed.  However, although a report was prepared, and we were able to make comments, some of which were incorporated, a subsequent programme of work did not get very far.  We also contributed to some work scoping alternative indicators in relation to climate change and economy but again this work did not get sustained.  In both cases personnel changes might have contributed to the lack of follow through.  More recently we have had talks with a number of council people about taking forward the work on the climate challenge but with inconclusive results.

I would say that the council does want to work with citizens, up to a point, but in general it has little understanding of participatory democratic practice and little capacity to do it properly (a situation made worse by years of government-imposed funding cuts). Moreover, the dominant economic model, and its commitments to increased traffic flow, the airport, and a continued, speculative building boom, is a constant block to taking the kinds of action needed to improve Manchester’s liveability now and in the future. There is also something of cultural problem, a fusion of a paternalism with a celebratory ethos, and together these can make it difficult to really accept citizen ideas and expertise and to share power.

Read a fuller response from Steady State Manchester to Leese’s blog post, here.

 

Name: Rose Arnold

Representing: Rising Up Manchester Families

I have found some individual councillors to be interested in ideas and open to discussion, others less so. But I think it is in the model of consultation which Manchester – and most councils – use for consultation which is deeply flawed and can only ever result in an us and them mentality. Currently officers come up with plans, then they take them to public consultation and then we – the public – pick holes in the plans.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There are innovative models of consultation which include interested parties and the wider public at an earlier stage, before there are concrete worked through plans. And of course there will be unrealistic ideas which are financially or otherwise unworkable. They wouldn’t get carried forward. But also there are likely to be strong viable ideas in there. There’s a huge amount of expertise amongst the group Richard Leese accuses of “carping” and “shouting from the sidelines”. And let’s face it. The task is huge and the council is short of budget and staff so we really need to be using every possible approach and resource to find solutions.

 

Name: Adam Russ

Representing: Bentley Estate aka The Redbricks (resident)

Writing as someone who has experienced firsthand the difficulty of obtaining timely information and consultation with MCC, it is galling to see regular claims of wishing to engage with local communities pushed out on MCCs social media. For many of us on the Bentley Estate (Redbricks) these claims fly in the face of our lived experience.

In our case, MCC had been developing a plan to re-engineer the Princess Road roundabout, (a plan that is to directly affect us) since June 2017. Their own bid for funding for the project stated that “The project team will engage with key stakeholders” they went on to list residents as key stakeholders, claiming “A Communication Strategy will be drafted in collaboration with TfGM which will provide the framework for a series of communication activities, delivered to promote and explain the rationale behind the scheme to various stakeholder groups and other interested parties, facilitate public consultation, seek feedback”.

Two years after these claims were made and having failed to contact local residents in the intervening period, we were alerted to the works’ imminent start by an article published in the Manchester Evening News, which due to their lack of communication shocked many residents, even more so as the plans showed the removal of ‘Rockdove Gardens’ a vital green buffer between the busy excessively polluting Princess Road and residents bedrooms and living spaces which led to outrage and kick-started the campaign to #saverockdovegardens.

Ironically, in their own bid MCC had answered the question “Can the project be considered as controversial in any way?” NO…! The proposed removal of Rockdove Gardens was plainly controversial as evidenced by 1,400 petition signatures against it, and it serves to show why consultation is vital and also explains why we and many other groups across Manchester feel that MCC is deliberately avoiding consultation with local residents so as to steamroll through planning decisions that are patently unacceptable.

Despite the reprieve for Rockdove Gardens, the Councils Executive Members have failed to acknowledge our concerns or provide evidence to us for claims that the works will “Relieve Urban Congestion” and in doing so reduce NO2 in the area. Even our tirelessly working local councillors have struggled to gain answers or information on the scheme, if local councillors are poorly informed what hope for residents?

So here we are, with few questions answered, as we now witness the removal of 50 mature trees and the increase of traffic capacity on our doorstep, all mere months after MCC’s self declared Climate Emergency Motion.

*As a postscript I’d just like to add I’ve still not received any official written notification the works are taking place, the price of postage stamp seems to be just too much where a £10 Million pound project is concerned.

 

Name: Dr François Nel

Representing: Save New Islington Green

Sir Richard Leese is right, in part, in his recent blog post to acknowledge that there is a great deal more to be done if the Manchester City Council is to meet its climate change emergency targets. He’s also right, in part, that a zero carbon city needs more homes and more jobs near public transportation.

But he is both disingenuous and unimaginative to posit that the choice is simply between ‘dense development on brownfield sites near transportation nodes’, on the one hand, and ‘concreting over greenfield sites’, on the other. And he’s simply wrong to assume that inner city residents are simple worker bees who need only densely-stacked cubicles to live in and densely-stacked offices to labour in. Like Cllr Leese and others who live in leafy suburbs, we who make our lives in the inner city need ample clean air to breath, ample green areas in which to relax and contemplate, ample green places where we can picnic and kick a ball with friends, ample green spaces where we can teach our kids to fly a kite. We should not have to move to the suburbs and commute to the city to raise our families and our standard of living.

Leese and his team are pressing on with a development framework for Ancoats and New Islington that was set in motion in before 2014 and that has largely ignored its own Green and Blue Strategy 2015, which calls for more and better green spaces – including converting brownfield sites. They are doggedly pursuing an outmoded strategy developed many years before this year’s declaration of the climate emergency –  rather than taking stock of new information and current concerns of the diverse communities who now make their lives and their living in Ancoats and New Islington. More specifically, I wonder:

●      Why has Cllr Leese refused to acknowledge that the New Islington Green is exactly that – a much-loved green lung that has been used by communities for decades and colloquially known as ‘Ancoats by the Sea’ – and not simply another brownfield site to be turned into another parking lot and office park?

●      Why has he accepted, if not directly presided over, a sham public consultation on the area development framework that included sending out an unsigned letter 24 hours before the only public event – and then brushed aside the residents’  strong objections and nearly 3,000 who have signed our petition?

●      Why has he refused to take up further offers for him and his planning team to meet directly with residents to discuss their concerns?

●      And why, oh why, has he agreed to, if not directly facilitated, the council’s sale of the 200,000 sqft (4.5 acre) New Islington Green site on Great Ancoats and Pollard streets for £2.38m, which is about seven times less per acre than the city council itself paid for the former Capital Centre retail park site two blocks away –  £37m was reportedly paid for the 457,380 sqft (10.5 acre) site? Land on the city centre fringe are currently being marketed as high as £7m per acre or even higher (1 acre = 43,560 sqft).

Cllr Richard Leese (and his team) is being judged by his deeds, not his words.  And he, like our city’s performance on environmental issues, is coming up very short.


Andrea Sandor

If you’re a campaigner or group who would like to contribute to this series, please contact us via email: editor@themeteor.org

Look out for the next installments of the Civic Participation in Manchester series.

Feature Image: Dianaova

Change 4 November 2019: Adam Russ was initially recorded as representing the Redbricks Resident’s Forum, this has been changed to say that he is representing Bentley Estate aka The Redbricks as a resident, to indicate he does not speak for the whole estate.

 

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  1. Stephen Pennells

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