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Sir Richard Leese says ‘we are open to working with anybody’ – we asked campaign groups what they thought (pt.2)

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. Five people, representing different interest groups in Manchester describe their experience of engaging with the council. This is the second article in a Meteor series called Civic Participation in Manchester.

In Part One, seven individuals shared their experiences of working with the Council, reflecting a range of different perspectives. In this article, five more share their stories, contributing to our debate about the state of civic participation in Manchester.

Sir Richard Leese

Sir Richard Leese’s blog, where he stated the council were “open to working with anybody”


Name: Dr. Morag Rose

Representing: The Loiterers Resistance Movement

I’ve been involved with a number of campaigns that would have loved to have more engagement with Manchester City Council but sadly this has often been lacking. A recent example has been regarding The Peterloo Memorial by Jeremy Deller.

As soon as the design was made public in October 2018 there were objections from disabled peoples organisations and many individuals. They were angry and upset that a monument which should celebrate the fight for equality and democracy instead symbolises segregation and exclusion.

We all welcomed the principle of a memorial to Peterloo, and many had been active in the long campaign to secure one, but felt a stepped structure, inaccessible to many, was simply wrong. We wanted to share our expertise and experience to come up with a creative solution but our voices were not listened to for too long. We finally met with Deller, the architects and MCC in March 2019. We welcomed the opportunity and were impressed by Deller’s openness to change, however we were told it was simply too late to stop construction. The memorial now stands as a testament to discrimination and bad practice, attracting widespread derision.

We have been promised change is possible and are still working to make the memorial accessible. However we continue to face obstacles and this terrible mistake is costing many campaigners considerable amounts of time and energy. This debacle could have been avoided if MCC had been open to listening and working with us at an early stage, or indeed if access and equality had been central to the design brief.  We have developed some good practice guidelines regarding genuine, transparent and effective consultation practices which we have given to MCC prior to the sharing of revised memorial designs. We wait to see what happens next and whether this will make a difference; if not campaigners are determined to continue the fight.

Name: Mike Halley

Representing: Macintosh Village

As a community we have never objected to any planning application, in favour of the progress that delivered communities like ours in the city centre.

However, for the first time we are fighting in objection to an application of a 55-storey tower. The application is complex and has many material planning considerations that would produce more harm than benefit as defined by National and Local policies. Macintosh Village is a residential neighbourhood, its ability to absorb anymore student accommodation risks ignoring lessons learnt in areas across the UK and closer to home such as Fallowfield. Moreover, this is following an intensive decade of construction within an 80-meter radius of our community. If this application is granted, it would mean we will have lived for 15 years in very close proximity to construction sites and the cumulative effects on long term residents. As such, we qualify as ‘human receptors’ exposed to cumulative health risks – including poor air quality, noise and disturbance – and legislation across the UK and International law applies to us.

Our councillors are representing us as we present facts to the statutory consultees including those responsible for environmental regulations. However, no matter how many videos from our CCTV cameras we send of trucks idling, feet away from our homes and community nursery, our councillors are helpless.

My impression is the council are so under resourced, while the developers have so many more resources, that there’s an asymmetry of information and resources.

We are very fortunate to have in our community a mix of professionals giving their time free of charge for three months to develop our 70-page community objection to the 55-story tower. As a result, the applicant has delayed the plans and are working with us in an attempt to minimise the harm and create benefits to the community. Since our objection, MCC planning have been excellent and open to community engagement.

However, I appreciate not all communities have the resources to develop this level of objection. The best situation would be for communities to have earlier engagement with plans, ideally at the pre-application stage so they can feed into the planning process and are happy with the plans so they don’t object.

Here are three initial steps the Council could take to improve engagement:

1.    In many other councils across the UK, other boroughs across Greater Manchester and towns like  Richmond in North Yorkshire, once the planning portal goes live, every comment is public all the way through the process. MCC chose to adapt a national policy such that no one sees anyone’s comments until a week before the planning committee meets and at that point the Planning Officer has made their recommendation. This is why we published our report, so that it would be public earlier and we engaged the community to add to this document and also include their material concerns. MCC should make all objections public as soon as the portal goes live.

2.    MCC planning committee meetings happen during the day, while other councils start theirs at 7pm. If I have a zero-hour job, it’s unfair to ask me to give up a half day’s pay to go represent my community. Attendance and engagement would be higher if planning committee meetings were held after working hours.

3.    MCC holds an annual resident’s forum. However, it only happens once a year for a couple of hours, doesn’t review last year’s notes and – the clincher – a resident doesn’t sit on the committee or help run the forum. The forum should be held more frequently, review previous meeting’s notes, and should at minimum have one resident running the forum with the council and the various stakeholders.

 

The Meteor: Freedom of Information Workshop – 28 November – tickets available on Eventbrite

 

Name: Marc Hudson

Representing: Manchester Climate Monthly

For over a decade I’ve been trying to get climate change higher up the agenda. We got lucky in 2009 with a group of smart, intelligent people who forced the council to open up its policymaking process, via ‘the Call to Real Action’. However, the following ten years have been a rear-guard battle, as they abolished awkward panels and awkward stakeholder conferences and had to be FOI’d into releasing the most basic of information. I am sure many other activists have similar tales. You can read a more detailed account of my experience of ‘working with’ the Council in my open letter to Sir Richard Leese.

As there are more campaign groups springing up, I’m going to summarise my experience of ‘working with’ the Council by giving some advice to new activists on the scene. First, realise that, on the whole, it’s nothing personal – just business. This is the way bureaucracies and autocracies operate.

For as long as they can, they will ignore you, until you go away or they find a way of using you and your energy (or, rarely, need you). Then they will smear you, in public but not by name, and certainly behind your back. Or, finally by name, as Richard Leese did at the last Executive meeting, by name. A complaint is going in, because he accused me of “refusing to help the Council”, which is totally false.

They will also make promises – of having meetings with you, of sending replies – and break their promises as easily as flogging off land to developers in exchange for … nowt.

They will simultaneously try to find a more tame version of you to be their fig leaf for whatever issue it is you are on about, or launch some labour group of well-meaning but often outmatched Labour councillors or activists. Blaming central government is also heavily used – “you should be directing your obvious energies at…”

They will then announce some consultation or policy-development process which they know will confuse, intimidate and bore most people. Then the gaslighting starts – you are not representative of the (never quite defined) ‘community’. You are uncooperative crusties, or girly swots. (And yes, this disdain for anyone who isn’t part of the cheer squad is not restricted to Tories). Prepare for all of the above.

Realise that you are very unlikely to have the personal emotional resources to deal with this on your own, and that if you want to be effective, you’re going to need a bigger crew. Performative burnout helps nobody and nothing. Your crew needs to roleplay, anticipate the council’s next move (it’s not hard – they have the myopic arrogance of the very complacent), and to figure out counter-strategies and collective stamina maintenance.

So, to summarise, here’s my experience in a tweet: “First they ignore you, then they smear you, then it’s on (for a while), then the caravan moves on (even if the issue doesn’t).” Good luck!

Richard Leese

 

Name: Anne Tucker

Representing: Upping It! & Moss Side resident’s association

I am an active and energetic member of a residents association in Moss Side and a founding member of Upping It!, a local “greening” group. We are working hard to improve recycling levels, reduce plastic waste, save excess food, and clean and green back alleyways. Our aim is to increase insects, cut carbon emissions, feed residents, encourage neighbourliness, and support residents to take control of our lives. To date, 29 (often filthy) alleyways behind terraced streets have been transformed into shared community-gardens.

MCC’s decision to declare a Climate Emergency (CED) is an admirable move, and I welcome the Leader’s remark about “working with anyone who wants to join us in this task”. However, in practice this is often frustrating and difficult.

For many months, we have been unable to increase the number of recycling bins – these are frequently overfull, resulting in residents losing heart and filling the landfill bins with their recyclables. The council have also dropped the food waste bin collections to once a fortnight in winter – in neighbourhoods where the majority of families cook fresh ingredients every night. The council’s answers are always “the cost”, but isn’t the point of the CED that resources need to be shifted towards activities that lower carbon emissions?

Cars and parking are another area of inaction. We watched with interest the closing of Oxford Rd to traffic, but with horror that nothing was done – let alone discussed – about mitigating the resulting increase of traffic through residential streets in Moss Side. Commuter parking takes place every day across the whole ward (people going to the Universities, the hospital and the city centre), although (poorly-publicised) park and ride schemes exist on most major roads coming into Manchester. Additionally, we have appalling vehicle contamination on the curry mile every night – visitors parking two, even three deep, and leaving engines running too.

This week MCC voted to create a new carpark on Great Ancoats Street. Clearly nothing has been done to enable planning decisions to be made with reference to air pollution/climate change. In contrast, our local civic society has made it policy to assess our support for new developments in terms of green electricity generation, retro-fitting, water saving, car pooling and efficient recycling. Why has MCC not done so too?

Moss Side has embarked upon discussions at ward level with our councillors on what can be done ourselves to lessen carbon emissions locally. Our residents association will hold its next meeting on this, and publicise afterwards for neighbours who can’t come.

Our contacts with MCC staff and councillors are variable – too often we feel the brunt of “residents behaviour change requirements”. What this means is that residents are expected to change our behaviour. This is particularly insulting when our reports of problems are ignored or we’re told they’re impossible to address for financial reasons. The CED should be the chance to put resources towards projects that can effect change at a neighbourhood level – we will happily deliver results and reports when asked.

 

Name: Nick Hubble

Representing: Active travel campaigner

In June 2019, Manchester City Council (“MCC”) announced that it was soon to commence work on transforming Great Ancoats Street (“GAS”) into a “European-style boulevard”. However, once you actually look at the visualisations, you see a very British 4-5 lane urban freeway with some trees planted down the middle and – crucially – no protected cycle lanes.

As so often, Twitter was the platform where dissent over the scheme incubated. As the disquiet grew, a couple of us decided to organise a protest. A petition was launched, securing hundreds of signatures, and we organised a cycling go-slow, dubbed “The Great Ancoats Street Swindle”, which was attended by hundreds of riders and attracted widespread coverage in press and broadcast media. Public opinion was broadly in favour of installing bike lanes when a road is redone, whether the person in question cycles or not. A dedicated band of urban planners, highways engineers etc. sympathetic to the cause drew up their own version of GAS with safe cycle lanes.

On the back of this momentum, we requested an emergency meeting of Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Forum so that relevant councillors could field questions from an engaged public. We were told that the Forum isn’t the correct platform for such a discussion (why that should be is a question many of us are still waiting for an answer to), so a private one-hour meeting was arranged with the chair of the Forum, Mandie Shilton-Godwin, the Executive Member for Environment, Planning and Transport, Angeliki Stogia, and Richard Elliot from the Highways team, with three active travel campaigners on our side.

At this meeting no progress was made at all. MCC stuck to their original position, basically saying it was too late in the day to make any substantive changes, plus at some as yet undetermined future point there’ll be some new cycle routes vaguely nearby that people can ride on if they want. They refused to go into why early GAS plans with bike lanes were discarded, and were indifferent to our alternative designs. One area of agreement was that the original consultation had been inadequate and consultation needs to be significantly improved. The meeting ended with MCC imploring us to work with them and support future walking and cycling schemes, to which our – predictable – response was that we will if they’re any good.

The same week the GAS scheme was referred back to MCC’s Neighbourhoods and Environment Scrutiny Committee (“NESC”) given the poor standard of the initial consultation. Councillor Stogia appeared before the NESC to defend the scheme and the consultation exercise, but was soundly rebuked by the Chair of the NESC, who referred the scheme back to undergo a more thorough consultation process.

We considered this a substantial victory and for a brief moment dared to hope that the scheme would be paused to enable proper consultation and a potential rethink. However, this referral merely revealed another serious deficit in MCC’s governance structures: all that happened was that the referral landed on the desk of the relevant Exec Member to take the final decision on how to proceed. The relevant Exec Member here is, wait for it… Stogia herself, and naturally she simply binned the referral. And that was the end of that. No further avenue for recourse.

When Mr. Leese claims he wants to reach out and invite public engagement, does he really just mean he wants people to rubber-stamp pre-decided plans? Or is he actually prepared to listen? Our experience on GAS very much suggests a council that is used to the former.

 

Read a fuller response from Nick Hubble here


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: Columbia University

Change to article 7 Novembers 2019: Morag Rose was initially listed as representing the Peterloo Memorial Campaign (PMC). This was a mistake. Morag Rose has campaigned for the Peterloo Memorial to be made accessible to disabled people, but does not speak for the PMC.

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