In a day full of words and assertions, the single most important question was not asked until fifteen minutes after the scheduled end-time. Half the delegates had already left. They missed nothing, however, because neither of the panelists, nor indeed the chair, seemed minded to comprehend that question, let alone answer it. Most readers of MCFly would find the question banal. The person who posed it, from a London environmental charity, felt compelled to frame it as “a bit counter-cultural.” And the question was… “what do you think of the notion of (ecological) ‘limits to growth’?”
That, in the year 2012, forty years after the book “Limits to Growth” was published, twenty-two years after the first IPCC report, and two and a half years on from the Copenhagen debacle, a conference called “Going for Growth: Stimulating Sustainable Local Regeneration” can be so silent on the central dilemma of the 21st century, speaks volumes about our political, economic and intellectual inertia, and our willful blindness. What a species!!
There’s not a whole lot more to say. Except of course there IS; so below follows a blow-by-blow account with analysis (or rather ‘my two cents’) of a deeply frustrating, but also deeply useful and worthwhile conference held at the Manchester Convention Centre on Tuesday 3rd July. Normally with these very long posts I urge people to skip if they feel like it. This time, because the issue is so important – and some of the people quoted so influential – I am urging you to go get a tea/coffee, some digestives, and schedule enough time for both reading and a lie down afterwards. And it would be terrific if we got a conversation going in the comments section too!
And so it begins
Neil McInroy, of Centre for Local Economic Strategies, chaired the first session. Sadly he was unable to find the time to start the debate about Airport City that he advocates but given his jetlag, that’s understandable.
My deciphered scribblings [which, throughout, capture the sense of what was said, but should not be taken as verbtim quotes] include “money rolling to some, away from others.” For growth need “Capital, Labour, Place-based Factors, Governance/Leadership.” “Can’t afford to misallocate capital, labour or mis-steward place.” “Need to acknowledge that even in good times some places didn’t get growth.”
He made no mention of the problems of growth (social or ecological).
We then had a keynote speech without any, um, key notes, from Lord Michael Storey CBE. He said that he could tell us everything we needed to know about the Regional Growth Fund in three minutes, but in the event he allowed himself about fifteen.
“£1.6bn so far Has created or sustained 328,000 jobs. There’s going to be a fourth round of it, so get those applications in [the form is simplified - ]. “
Richard Leese, whose main claim to fame is having been the first MCMonthly interviewee,was up next. “When I say Manchester I mean Greater Manchester. Place elements- it’s people’s knowledge and skills. Cities as prime generators, Regions and Corridors are not” (what can he possibly mean?). “History of working together. In 90s got structures and agencies in place – Marketing Manchester, MIDAS, Manchester Enterprises) Strong evidence base from the Manchester Independent Economic Review, gave credibility with external partners. It revealed strengths and weaknesses. Latter around early years problems (under fives).
“Our Independent Economic Advisory Panel even includes an LSE professor who says we’re not going to get growth outside London and the South-east.”
“Whole-place community budgets. Tackling worklessness, complex families, re-offending, generally trying to reduce dependence.
“AGMA became GMCA, official role now, especially around economic development and transport. Strong platform of accountable leadership.” [MCFly will admit to a wry smile at hearing this, and at typing it out hours later].
“Important to move from grant-based stuff to investments. In round one of the Regional Growth Fund the city council wanted to invest but was forced to give grants. The MIER said “if companies want grants, you don’t want them.” Interested in privatised (?) projects around transport, broadband, housing and “low carbon” projects.
“To drive growth need innovation, self-reliance and the City Deal. The most radical bit of this is “earn back” – £1.2bn can be reinvested in transport, which will maximise labour availability (i.e. People commuting from Oldham to Airport City on Metrolink.)
“’Earn back’” as first hypothecated ['ring-fenced'] local tax revenues.
“Also managing the wind-up of the NWDA, setting up a “growth hub.” The Regional Growth Fund is funding that, but after will be supported through revenues from business rates.
“Skills – what’s demanded by the economy, existing and future needs of business. Employer led via GM Chamber of Commerce. 20% increase in apprenticeships. City Deal will maintain skills budget, get local authorities, colleges and employers talking to each other.
“Virtually no job losses in “professional services” in Manchester since 2008.
“Sharp project a Good Thing.
“Airport City, Medipark, Siemens, Corridor, Noma (of which more later), Etihad call-center, national graphene institute to get commercial exploitation.
“Can’t stand still” “continue to encourage/create conditions for business to grow. GM City Deal is significant step forward – gives real leavers.
“Can look forward to City Deal II later in the year. …. city region to become more independent, less reliant on central government. GM is 2.5m, shouldn’t be reliant on government handouts, determine own destiny.”
What did he NOT talk about; Um. Climate Change. Not even the previously much-brandished Mini-Stern about the costs of not dealing with climate change for the North West.. Forget about the Climate Change Action Plan – you’re having a laugh.
Anyway, after that ultra-slick and ultra-velocity tour of what David Harvey would label “the spatial fix”, anything else was going to be a let-down. Even so, Phil Cox, (Department of Communities and Local Government) basically gave a presentation that consisted of “The Portas Review? – ‘heck yeah’ … and we’ve just closed the second round of applications.”
Someone pointed out that Michael Storey’s “Who is here from the private sector? The public sector?” had, um, ignored the voluntary sector. Everyone then rushed to swear their allegiance.
A Manchester City Councillor finally provoked the panelists to talk about climate change, by asking how MCC is using our influence to encourage the green economy.
Leese: “If growth isn’t environmentally sustainable we’re definitely going wrong. I’m strong believer in impacts of climate change. Wettest June on record, in line with what you’d expect. Quite radical action needed in next 4 to 5 years [or else we will go] past next tipping point. Need to do everything we can. New investment models, regulatory model. Make unsustainable growth more difficult… in that last bit there are real tensions.”
Neil McInroy then threw the panel a question: “Should we accept that growth will not reappear [in some places] and look to steady state economics?” (no mention of the carbon reduction imperative, mind.)
Cox “No, but role of government is to allow areas to fulfill their potential. In some places regeneration in practice didn’t work.” NM: “So if an area decided against?” Cox: “wld go along.“
Leese: “We need to look at history – villages that were towns, towns that were cities, and ruins. North-eastern China full of rust bucket cities. No place has right to exist. In some places growth, in others decline/change. Some places could become far nicer places…”
Here endeth the morning’s panel.
The masses versus the (master)classes
The two ‘masterclasses’/workshops (really lectures, but never mind) that I attended were very good. First up a chap from the Co-op (Ruairidh Jackson, Director of Strategy and Development) talking about Noma (no, not the unpleasant tropical disease), the redevelopment of all that land out near Manchester Victoria where nobody goes at present (“a new, 4 million sq ft, mixed-use, masterplanned redevelopment in the heart of the UK’s second city, Manchester.“) He gave a run through of the project and its thinking, contrasting it with the ‘traditional’ approach of “starting with economic goals, conceding ecological and social goals until a tipping point and then saying “no” to everything else.” This approach, he was at pains to say, was not something the Co-op had ever done
There was a bit of a love-in about how quick the City Council was to give final approvals on applications, since they’d been working with the Co-op beforehand, and how they’d taken on a chunk of the risk burden. New HQ is going to be BREEAM outstanding and “carbon negative” thanks to clever air con via dirty big tunnels under t’soil. Still and all, the “Manchester’s Sustainable City Centre District” and “The Fabric of a Better Society” slogans are a bit naff.
The second masterclass was by Re:allies, as in procure-plus.com and www.efficiencynorth.org, which is doing dead interesting sounding work around helping “hard to reach” people into meaningful work. Or at the very least giving them useful skills. I didn’t quite get my head around how it all fits together (who pays the bills), but am generally intrigued, especially by the level of tenant involvement that it appears they encourage and maintain.
Here’s a bit of the website blurb: “Re:allies is a new strategic collaboration of housing consortia representing Efficiency North (with St Leger Homes of Doncaster as the lead contracting authority), Procure Plus (in association with Lancashire Housing Partnership and Cumbria Housing Partners), and North East Procurement, all meeting the needs of their various clients – primarily social housing landlords, who are located across the whole of the UK.”
Here endeth the two masterclasses. (I obviously couldn’t get to the the green roof one, or the “SMEs and their contribution to local economies and employment -how can they do more”, which, on reflection, I should have! Run by B4Box, it was.
Lunch was fun. I got to watch Andy Murray won his tennis match, but you can’t have everything.
The second half of the day was chaired by Professor Brian Robson, director of U of M’s Centre for Urban Policy Studies. He opened his speech by observing the world was very different from a decade ago. Now less money, different geographies, a lot more competitive global environment. These things demand different (re)actions. He didn’t mention the pending ecological debacle.
He cited the MCC leader before this one, one Graham Stringer (whatever happened to him?) “If you’ve got no money, you’ve got to think.”
According to Robson “we need rather clever long-term strategies… increase skills base of labor force, change things in the course of a generation. Appalling levels of skills (in Manchester). Localism Agenda… death of Regional Development Agencies no loss at all. Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) closer to “functional economic region.” He cited Richard Leese – cities will lead growth agenda, agglomeration crucial – size, scale, variety and interconnectedness are crucial success factors. Manchester lookin’ good with City Deal, Enterprise Zones, Regional Growth Fund…. “The Burnley/Oldham Factor – places need to rethink their rationale for existence.” Requoted Leese’s “learn from history, nowhere has a right to exist.”… and mused that “we are poor at dealing with shrinkage.” London polycentric, Manchester and Leeds suck things in… Liverpool dribbles things in…”
So then Bill Edrick of “Yorkshire Energy Services”. Kudos to him, he was the first panelist or chair in the day to, unbidden, mention climate change. No Keeling Curve, or emissions trajectories, but a start nonetheless. He talked about Tianjin (well, this), a newly-built ‘test-bed’ city in China, and also, inevitably, Freiburg. I got the feeling, as did the person next to me, that this might be his standard stump speech. He then segued into a spiel about the Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation.
Then it got a little interesting. Mike Emmerich of the New Economy was up, addressing “Localism: What has Manchester Done”. It was to be, he said “flesh on the bones” of what Richard Leese had said in the morning.
He gave a potted history of AGMA (1986), the Business Leadership Council (2008), The MIER (2009) the Greater Manchester Strategy (2010), the GM LEP/GMCA (2011) and the City Deal (2012).
Failed to mention a certain other report, of which more later…
The Manchester Independent Economic Review, clearly a document the steadystatemanchester.net crowd are going to have to get their eyes and thinking gear around, “created an evidence base around – Manchester not a destroyer of regional jobs, advised “focus on the under-fives, by the time there are in school the die is cast.” The bright poor kids mostly stuffed, end up the less-bright well-off kids. “Stop obsessing about clusters. Chase inward investment, but not the subsidy-hunters, who move on quickly.
This is, as per Leese, all standard Sustainability Fix stuff.
But aye-up, capital is flowing in, in LARGE sums (up flash the logos Etihad, Aegis, Bank of China, Holyroyd Precision)
“There is money still in the system. Earn back formula being negotiated.” “Airport City, heck yeah…
“If you have a model that needs grants, it may be ok – eg. If contaminated land needs clear up. But many grants cover-up lack of market viability. ‘How many buildings full of public sector agencies that will die… ‘investments, not grants…”
“Embrace the “Knowledge Economy”.. [but] not through “endless cluster organisations.” [If I were Corridor Manchester, I might be starting to worry.]
“Sharp Project a Good Thing.
“Graphene Hub a Good Thing.
a) understanding what your good at and getting better
b) how you invest, are you able to hustle
c) new ways of intervening (earn back, f. ex)
d) grow size of functional market/labour market.”
Then it got very entertaining. David Hibbert, man of many portfolios at Oldham Council took massive umbrage at what Brian Robson had said about Oldham (mostly in the comparison with Burnley), and enumerated at length all the good things being done.
So, then I asked Mike Emmerich (and I was quite careful in my phrasing to make a question rather than a statement, but this appears to have been lost) “is it the case that clusters are just agglomeration that you don’t like?”
Apparently not. It’s about “scale” and “critical mass.” Clusters. it seems, “don’t take account of the cost of building, the network costs around transport, heating and lighting.”
Erm, is it not the case that Manchester might see itself as an agglomeration at the national scale, but in trying to be a node in the international economy, it is a cluster? And if we are talking about transport costs as a hidden extra, what do you call the ecological costs of aviation, and their long-term unsustainability (in any sense). It seems to me – but I could be wrong – that the words “cluster” and “agglomeration” are two words for the same thing…
And beyond that, let’s back up here for a minute. I only have two samples, but I see a pattern emerging. A couple of weeks ago a different New Economy (the clue doesn’t really appear to be in the name) person was assessing Another Thing NE People Don’t Like – “Steady State economics.” The exact same argument (well, ‘rhetorical trick’) was used; “this option would not be ‘cost-free’.” All the while maintaining a dignified silence on the costs of the current way of doing things, and implying that the existing option is all-benefit. It seems an odd way for an economics think tank to do its assessments, but what do I know?
What wasn’t said; Deloitte in the toilet
Neither Richard Leese nor Mike Emmerich mentioned the “Mini-Stern” review that Deloitte were commissioned to write in 2008. This (over?)bigged up the costs of not acting on climate change. The urgency of climate mitigation a very pre-Copenhagen message, it seems.
The Home Stretch
The final two speakers were in the graveyard slot. Alexandra Jones of the Centre for Cities (“Independent, non partisan research and policy institute committed to improving the economic performance of UK cities” – but generally regarded as Tory-ish) outlined why cities matter/some are successful/geography,infrastructure and skills, and the policy implications. Lots of motherhood and apple-pie stuff around skills, interacting, innovation/ Then Alex Thomson of Localis (“an independent think-tank dedicated to issues related to local government and localism. We carry out innovative research, hold a calendar of events and facilitate an ever growing network of members to stimulate and challenge the current orthodoxy of the governance of the UK. “); Business rates, community budgets, city deal. More motherhood and apple pie, no case study that would have persuaded or enlivened. Almost throwaway comment on municipal bonds – that could usefully have been unpacked. Also on pension funds. “Joined up services” “new model for public services”. Graph of doom (“Without radical change, the cost of social care could soak up every penny of Barnet council’s budget within 20 years.”)
So then, finally, the question that mattered; “Limits to Growth? Opinion?” It was asked by David Calver who is active with the South West London Environment Network.
One of the speakers kind of answered a different question, but quickly as, and the other chose to hear it as “sustainable growth” rather than “limits to growth” and then declared they had nothing to add. Shocking, but not really surprising, is it?
Brian Robson didn’t pick it up in his closing remarks (“the day rightly immediately focused on cities. Diverse responses that reflect strengths and weaknesses, public-private collaboration, skills of local people crucial to attract inward investment, esp middle range skills (FE colleges). New governance structures are a work in progress. LEPs will evolve.”)
And so it ended.
Pre-registration communications were efficient and effective.
Registration on the day was straightforward
Lots of scheduled time for mingling and schmoozing
So-so coffee, good tagine
I liberated a few black (yum!) pens and some notepads.
Rather snazzy hold-all as a freebie
No acknowledgment of greenhouse gases
Given the venue is about 100m from where Professor Kevin Anderson works, it’s sad they didn’t get him along to explain the latest climate science. Need only have taken twenty minutes, and we could have down without the Portas stuff if needs be. “Not relevant” you might say. Er, it is, and if the word “sustainable” is in your subtitle, then define it and explore it, no? Don’t let it be a floating signifier that allows everyone to think what they want. Even the Brundtland definition would have been an improvement.
No encouragement from the chair(s) to turn to the person behind you and intro
The feedback forms were not anonymised (I don’t care what the organisers think/feel about me – they can’t hurt me. Other people, who can be hurt, will be far more circumspect. You want the truth, go anonymous. Simples)
The “masterclasses/workshops were not, if we are quibbling (and obviously we are) workshops but rather lectures. But that’s fine, because they were dead interesting.
Over-ran in the afternoon, especially as many of the speakers gave their standard (longer) stump speeches.
Appalling gender “balance”
One person I spoke to was among a group of businessfolk who aren’t based in CBDs, and so got irked by the very city-centre focus of all this. I can see their point.
If there were a next time (somehow I suspect I may be off their press list after this!)
I’d be tweeting like a trooper
I’d devise and circulate a few “buzzword bingo” cards to liven up proceedings. “Innovation, resilient, communities, learning, skills agenda,”
Print off and circulate Graham Haughton and Phil Allmendinger’s article about localism.
MCFly says: The winners in a game aren’t usually interested in changing the rules when they are still winning. And cities like Manchester – or rather, the people who matter, who make the decisions – are still winning. Manchester attracts inward investment because of its universities, its geography, its “spatial fix,” its effective governance. Manchester is “winning.” But the rules of the game will change.
We think that the role of the “concerned citizen” is to start making the preparations for that day; for themselves, for their neighbourhoods and their communities, both local and global. This work is best done in collaboration.
The task is also, sad to say, to do some of the thinking – freelance! – for organisations drunk on their current success.
If we don’t do this work, then the responses of our lords and masters will very probably be more regressive, more ineffective and generally unpleasant than they otherwise might need to be. Admittedly, this is not much of a banner to rally behind, but then, we are making history not in the circumstances of our own choosing.