Interview with Cllr Sue Murphy (Deputy Leader of #Manchester City Council), October 2012

Monday October 29th, 2012 at Manchester Town Hall.  Deputy Leader Sue Murphy interviewed by Arwa Aburawa and Marc Hudson

Question: What is the one thing you feel the council has done best around the climate change agenda in the last couple of years?
Murphy: I think the best thing the council has been trying to do is make climate change and the green agenda part of everybody’s responsibility. So yes, Nigel Murphy may be the overall lead but we are all expected to know something about the issue and consider it in all our portfolios work – Nigel may be a bigger expert than me but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it in my work. So I think that shift in thinking to realise that you can’t leave it to one person -it’s everyone’s responsibility and there should be a thread running through our work.

Besides the huge austerity cuts what are the big challenges to the council taking action on this agenda?
I think the big challenge is economic stability and economic growth in the sense of making the most of opportunities in Manchester. So if something is going to happen anyway, then we would quite like it to happen in Manchester. Overall I think that Manchester is quite a successful city but there are lots of people living in the city that are not connected to that success and it’s much more sustainable if our own people are the ones that benefit from our success.

So jobs and training for families who have been historically dependent on benefits?
Yeah, that sort of thing and also people in low-level jobs when they have much more potential – that’s a big loss. The council is very good at something called family learning which is something done through schools and it’s about getting to parents and carers through a child’s education. Encouraging them to come into school and maybe do literacy and numeracy alongside their child or in the same environment. That’s worked very well as it’s less intimidating for people to come into that rather than going somewhere completely new. At the end, there’s another scheme which I am really proud of at the Manchester College and we have a scheme called Access to Medicine where we have 30 guaranteed places for people who do an access course at college. They tend to be mature students in that they are probably in their 20s and they are more often women who haven’t had that opportunity when they were at schools. So they gone on study to become doctors and dentists even though they missed out on those opportunities when they were at school.

We also have a really good success rate as I feel the access course better prepares them for their studies and they have more life experience and are really clear about what they want.

Now I am going to channel LibDems or Greens and say ‘well, you’ve gone and shut down the SureStart centres’.
Well, that was quite hard and you have to make difficult decisions when you are faced making they sort of cuts that are being asked of us. There are things you do that you don’t want to do because you know they are damaging and you are left with little choice. So we’ve decided to keep all the buildings and try and do something with them that will help the community. And actually something good comes out of something bad and we have developed a model that is more successful at contacting the under-5s than the traditional sure start model as the programme is more outward facing. So where we have trialled that in Ardwick we have found 80% of the mothers have new-born babies whereas before they were only 25-30% so that’s quite good. But that was one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through and it was a choice between really horrendous things and a little less horrendous things – and I don’t think it’s going to be any easier next time. The thing that really infuriated me was that we were having to make bigger cuts that the other local authorities and it wasn’t fair – we ended up having to cut more than other authorities and I would say that we have got the greatest need.

One of the issues on your portfolio is community cohesion. I would like to throw out a couple of hypothetical scenarios and ask how prepared the council is in terms of dealing with it. Hypothetical scenario is a heat wave that leaves lots of people struggling because they are elderly or can’t get access to water or air conditioning. What happens then?
That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know if there are any plans to deal with heatwaves in particular but one of the things we have learnt from the really tough winters we’ve had is getting better at knowing where vulnerable people are. One of things that we did in my ward was trying to make sure that we work local housing providers as they would have most of the knowledge. Who knows where elderly people are and who is house-bound? Trying to establish a network with that knowledge was really important and I guess when you have the blocks of that knowledge in place you can apply it anything I guess. We also did a campaign with other councils about getting neighbours to check on each other.

Climate change is obviously a global problem so let’s say that – and this isn’t impossible – a war starts between India and Pakistan and communities in Manchester who have families in respective countries feel very tense towards each other. What would the council be able to do around that?
We have been trying to develop ways to see where tensions are and predict them. We have good contacts with lots of community leaders and we are a fairly representative bunch on the council so we have got people who are aware of those communities and would try to read it in advance. But it does happen – Manchester has the largest Libyan population outside of London so when all that was going on there were a fair number of demonstrations and we had to allow those demonstrations to happen but we also needed to be aware of them and make sure that they happen safely. In a city like Manchester where you have got huge numbers of people from all around the world, there are going to be tensions from time to time so it’s about understanding and trying to predict some of it.

The west contributes more to climate change due to its large carbon emissions. Does Manchester recognise that and have a sense of responsibility in terms of practical solidarity?
I do think that Manchester has a duty to do that. It’s not my specialist area but we are trying to move away from the traditional friendship agreement to something a bit more. We recently had a friendship request from Lahore and we said we don’t really do any more twinning or friendship style stuff but what we’re now talking to them about is working together on a project. So if there’s an area we both feel like we could benefit then we will look into it – and one of the things we are looking at are the impacts of climate change. That’s very much in the early stages but I think it’s something more interesting. In the same that Osaka in Japan are looking at city-level governance, we are talking to Lahore about climate change rather than having one-off nice certificate and a couple of councillors go off on a jolly.

What are other barriers specifically to the council taking action on climate change?
I think part of it is about education and we are trying to get all councillors to do carbon literacy training (I’ve not done mine yet so I’m a complete novice). Part of that is about awareness-raising and getting councillors to understand the carbon impact of all their actions. I think that’s something we haven’t quite got a grip on quite yet but we are beginning to get there. I think it starts with very small things. About 12 years ago I was in charge of recycling for a year when it first started and I remember being told ‘there’s no point in doing that, you are never going to get people to put things in different bins’. Now, it would almost unthinkable for us not to do it and partly because it makes sense financially because it saves on landfill tax and partly because people expect it. I think there has been a change in people’s mindset when it comes to those issues.

I see that you are in charge of ward co-ordination and the new annual ward plans. How is that going and how highly do issues such as climate change and environmental issues feature in the ward plans?
Well, that’s actually now been handed over to Bernard Priest but the ward plans tend to include local issues and those do tend to be recycling, lighting and all those sort of things. One of the things that features in the ward plans is green spaces and trees which I don’t think people put in there because they think climate change, but it’s all connected.

We had an unfortunate experience with the ward plans – it was a bit of a Waiting for Godot thing – they kept telling us “next month” “next month” “next month.” It took about four or five months. We think it was because it was three year ward plans, then the started doing it annually. We don’t think they’d quite got into the rhythm of things.

We’ll apply the thumbscrews to Councillor Priest…
[laughs] I’m sure he’ll be happy to talk to you about it. We started meeting together once every six weeks or so to look at them, because there’s still some things that I do – voluntary sector stuff – you can’t separate that from ward co-ordination really, because there’s lots of particularly very small groups who need to be involved in what happens locally.

I’m wondering if the ward plans could be used in a really useful way, in terms of dealing with heat waves, dealing with extreme weather, because I think that is something I didn’t see in the ward plans that I was hoping to see. Where are the vulnerable people in certain wards, certain wards have older populations …

That’s where we started in my ward… what tipped it over was a power cut. [There was] the problem of not knowing where [the vulnerable] people were, because it happened late in the evening. It does make sense to do it on that local level.
Just because things aren’t in ward plans doesn’t mean they’re not happening. It’s supposed to be a kind of priority list. But I will follow up the idea about vulnerable residents and see where we are up to on it.

I think it would be useful, because the ward plans are supposed to be outward-facing. It would be good to have something that people could read.
Yes. We’re trying to do the “my area” bit on the website a bit better. That’s still under development.

You used to have the ward level newspaper. It’s a couple of years ago since that went.
Yes. I don’t think we’ve made the transition from that to having things available online.

The council’s website is vast, and if you know where you are going it’s okay…
I really think that’s something we need to be a bit better at.

Of course, not everyone’s online. And this brings us to older people – is that still in your remit?
Sort of. I do equalities, and part of that is about older people. But Glynn Evans who does adult services and health tends to do the vulnerable bit of it, whereas I get the “nice” bit, which is about positive images of aging and involving older people in the life of the city…. It was Glynn’s idea in our ward [both Cllrs represent Brooklands] of having a proper network of where the vulnerable residents are.

To come back to international affairs – as well as Lahore and Osaka – are there other places that the City Council is in discussion, around not just climate but social cohesion and environment issues more generally.
We’re in touch with a fair number of the Scandinavian countries. We get a lot of requests for visits – for them to come to us. There’s a lot of interest in our carbon reduction plan, for example. But it needs to become more of a reality as well, so we can show people.

We’ve got a good plan, and it’s starting to work…

There are two headline goals to that plan. One is the 41% cut (to emissions by 2020). The Council has got an implementation plan for itself and for Northwards Housing. Are you aware of other organisations in the city that have implementation plans yet?
I would think they’d be there, but I don’t know explicitly. Northwards Housing, because it’s a different kind of housing company, which means that it’s there for a fixed time and then the housing stock comes back to the city council, so we still own it, technically. Whereas other bits like Parkway Green or Willow Park – they’re separate entities – although we have a fair amount of influence. Parkway Green is my local one, and we did some work before everything went wrong about solar energy and solar panels and the feed-in-tariff. We’d got real big plans about solar energy for some of our housing stock there which just all fell apart, sadly.

That wasn’t a trick question – we’ve not heard of other implementation plans.
I haven’t either … that’s something for me to go and ask about, even as a local councillor. I think there are people who are doing good things, but I’m not sure if they actually have a plan to do it, or whether it’s a bit unplanned.

Now here’s a tricky mean question – what does a low carbon culture look like? What does it mean – because that’s the second headline goal of the [Climate Change Action Plan], and we keep asking people…

Am I allowed to say I don’t know? I think that’s what I mean about making it a reality. Because I know what a low carbon culture is to me, which is about knowing what kind of impacts that everything we do has on the environment and on climate change. And that should be really our goal, but I think that making that a reality is still something we need to have a bit more explicitly in the implementation plan.

It’s not just the Council’s responsibility. So, what would you like to see – I’m not trying to create a headline that says “Exec Member slams voluntary sector for not doing enough”, that’s not where I am going with this. What sorts of things would you like to see, that are already happening that could be amplified, and what sorts of things do you think are not happening you would like to see happening?
I think that it’s about understanding what you’re doing and co-ordinating it. It’s a bit like, going back to housing as an example, I know Parkway Green has a plan about vehicle usage – their own vehicles. You’ve got plans about insulation for properties and all that kind of thing. Is that tied together anywhere and made explicit so we understand ‘this is why we’re doing it, because we want to be a low-carbon city.’ Are all those things we’re doing tied together enough, and I don’t think they are.

I think it’s not entirely the Council’s job, but we do have a civic leadership role, so being seen to ask people to do that, to be aware of it, is fine. It’s probably where we can make the biggest difference – not just what we do, but what we encourage other people to do.

On the question of the Council and its relationship to civil society… we’re wondering what sorts of things you think the council could do to be more transparent, and to tell what’s going well and what’s not going well, over and above what it already does.
I think a better website would be a start, where we can put information about performance. We had an interesting discussion about data – that we should make all the data we can available. But data isn’t transparency, so if we released all the data we hold on everything, it probably wouldn’t tell you very much, so it’s finding a way of having some kind of indicators about what we’re doing, I think, so you don’t have to wade through pages and pages and pages of information to find out what you want to know.

Any thoughts on how the scrutiny committees work. As an Exec member, obviously it’s difficult for you to speak publicly about the Scrutiny Committees because they’re supposed to be keeping you…
in line.

Are there any changes to either the structure of the scrutiny committees or their remits that you would like to see?
We’ve changed the remits slightly this year to make the titles a bit more meaningful. The Scrutiny I go to most is the one about economy and that, over the last couple of years, has really started to work much better. And I think that’s by not overloading people with information , by having people set their own agenda. … I might say “I [as an Exec] am thinking about this, do you want to have a look at it,” but that’s very different from trying to set the whole agenda for them. I think it’s taken quite a long time to bed in, but I do think it’s much more challenging to go to Scrutiny Committee than it ever was to be chair of a committee, because you’re not in control, and you have to relinquish that control I think to the Scrutiny Committee, to let them question you.

And when we’ve got a big Labour majority, people have to feel okay about being able to question their own [party’s] politicians, and that is alright. It might feel uncomfortable sometimes, but you just have to do it. And you [Execs] have to accept it.

Economic Growth – what happens if it doesn’t come back?
It’s very very difficult, because a lot of the things the Government are doing are actually making sure that it doesn’t come back anytime soon, and they don’t really have a plan for growth. I think locally we’re doing relatively okay. But the most important thing for me would be that growth – or prosperity rather than growth if you’re not going to see big rises in growth – are shared more evenly. So not everything is centred in London and the south-east, but are more evenly spread across the whole of the country, particularly in the North.

And does that redistribution between regions then have to scale down to redistribution within regions?
I think that’s quite hard, because Manchester is clearly the economic driver for the City Region, but I’d also say probably for the north west. That’s what draws people here, and we’re competing a lot of the time not with other parts of the UK, but with other European cities. So if there’s less to go around it needs to be spread out more evenly, and if putting something in Manchester has more of an impact on redistribution than putting it in London, then we should be fighting for it to come here.

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