Interview with Councillor Marc Ramsbottom, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, on February 3rd 2012. Conducted by Marc Hudson at Manchester Town Hall.
Q Cllr Ramsbottom, many of our readers would either not vote in local elections, or think about voting Green. Probably few of them would vote Labour or Liberal Democrat. So my first question is 1) why should people pay attention to local government – surely it doesn’t matter, and 2) if they’re going to vote, why would a vote for the Liberal Democrats end up with a greener Manchester?
Okay, first of all in terms of ‘why vote?’ I suspect that most of your readers are probably – definitely – politically aware, or politically active generally. Otherwise they wouldn’t be interested in climate change issues, environment issues and so forth. So I suspect that a higher proportion of your readers might be inclined to vote, although they might feel that whatever’s on offer – the parties on offer, or the candidates on offer – don’t represent to them a real change or anything meaningful. But I think, irrespective of what you decide to vote, I would always urge people to vote, because I think local government does matter, and it’s going to matter increasingly more. I think we have been through a little bit of a downtime in terms of local government, where central government has been centralizing and taking powers away from local government. And that has, to some extent, emasculated lots of local authorities over the years. But I think we’re going to see a shift in that. And that is largely due to the Liberal Democrats in government insisting that we need to have real meaningful local democracy. Now, we might not have everything that people would like, but there’s no doubt there’s going to be some shifts, and there’s some legislation coming our way that gives more people locally greater choice and powers than they’ve ever had before. So it does matter, and I think at the end of the day people do care about the environment, the neighbourhoods that they live in. And the Council has a real control over some of those things. Whether it’s local planning issues, or transport and traffic issues. The real grassroots local things really nark or irritate people sometimes, and councils do have power over that.
In terms of why I think Liberal Democrats, well, for me, I got brought into the Liberal Democrats precisely because of my interest in local politics. I saw the Liberal Democrats particularly committed to working on behalf of their local communities and taking up the issues that mattered to them. And that’s what got me involved with them, many many years ago. And I think there’s always been that very strong localised tradition in the Liberal Democrat Party, which respects neighbourhood, respects the local areas people live in and wants to see change, and power devolved to the most local level. So it’s a bit of a long answer, but I think that hopefully summarises it.
So if at the next elections – lets go back and say that the trajectory of more and more Liberal Democrats winning seats [in Manchester City Council elections] that happened after 2004 continued, and that the Liberal Democrats now controlled Manchester City Council. How would it different – especially again on climate and environment issues – than it does now?
I think it would look different because .. the key thing on how the Council needs to change is that it needs to be less centred on the Town Hall and more centred on local communities and neighbourhoods. It would be about shifting power away from the hands of the Chief Executive and the Leader, which it is at the moment, and shift it and devolve it to a) in the first instance other local councillors and their neighbourhoods and then beyond that out into communities itself. Through local neighborhood forums, by having local planning committees, for example, around local areas…. There needs to be a massive decentralisation of powers. So you’ve got this shift of power from national government to local government but the next step is a responsibility for local government to shift and devolve powers to the lowest level, where it matters to local people. Now obviously there’s got to be some things decided at Town Hall level, the strategic level. It’s about making sure where that balance is right. And at the moment, in my biggest problem with Manchester City Council is that it’s highly centralised. And it’s not just centralised in the Town Hall, it’s centralised in the hands of two people in the city, and that is the Leader and the Chief Executive, and everyone else has to toe the line. That’s the biggest change we need to see happen in this city, in my view.
Take a practical example – the “Twenty’s Plenty” proposal that got bi-partisan support. Would that be something that could work if it were devolved, because I can imagine a lot of ward level discussions and decisions being dominated by the – for want of a better phrase – Jeremy Clarkson brigade. I can call them that, you probably might choose not to.
I think I did, actually (laughs).
I suppose it becomes a question of how can local neighbourhood forums, which are often poorly attended at present – and you might argue that’s simply because they’re talking shops and they have no substantive powers – but how would they be able to research and co-ordinate something like a climate change action plan for Manchester?
Ah, well, I think what I would say is, you have to devolve power where it’s most suitable and appropriate. There’s some things from a strategic level – for example, transport; if you want any meaningful decision on transport…
Yes there are some things locally, like where the local bus-stop gets put, issues around local carparks et cetera, but if you want anything about public transport, for instance, you’ve got to decide that on a city-wide or even a Greater Manchester level. So if you’re looking at policy or strategy, yes, some of those things have to be decided at a city-wide level – you can’t devolve everything. And the example you gave, of Twenty’s Plenty; if we as a Council decide that is a policy position we want to adopt, then you have to drive that forward, politically you have to have the commitment to do it. Not just on that, but on any other issues. And we know, yes, there are always vested interests, there are always the people who say ‘not in my back yard’. Although generally I think, if you take the time and the attention and the trouble to explain things to people, people are very often persuaded by the arguments. People are not narrow-minded, they do have broader interest than their little area, but they do care passionately about their area, particularly if they see things being done to it that they feel powerless over. My experience of being a councillor is that people don’t mind, sometimes, if the decision goes against them, so long as they feel they’ve had the opportunity to have their say. And I think that is really important. And the thing is with the Council that very often consultation is ‘oh well, we’ll go out and talk to people’ is really just a meaningless sort of council-speak. The Council’s already decided what it wants to do, and it wants to do a token consultation exercise, it doesn’t really engage with people. And that’s what I think we need to try and change.
Can you point to some Liberal Democrat-controlled councils in England that are doing the sorts of meaningful consultation where plans haven’t already been made and a rubber stamp is being sought? that you can point to and say “Well, Council X is doing it how we would do it if we were in power in Manchester.”
No, to be honest I couldn’t. I mean I don’t know sufficiently about what’s going on in lots of different local authorities around the country. What I do know is that when I go to conferences and seminars where Liberal Democrats are running authorities, I know when I speak to people in my position that this is very much at the top of their agenda of what they’re trying to do. Now, sometimes they may not do everything in the way they would like. Sometimes you’re battling against vested interests – officers of the town hall, or ‘the way things have been done around here for years’ – it’s very very difficult. So they’ve got their own battles. But I know it is a passionate belief. It’s intrinsic – it’s at the heart of what Liberal Democrats believe in – it’s trying to devolve decision making, and engage with people in a meaningful level. And I know that when I go to seminars and conferences and I hear Liberal Democrats talking on local government issues, it’s very much at the heart of our agenda. Now, we won’t always get that right, and there’s always a difficult balance, because the council sometimes has to make strategic decisions that mitigate against that. And of course, you’ve got to also make sure that, you know, one of the criticisms of that approach is to say “well, won’t it be the sort of ‘pushy middle-classes who’ve got the biggest elbows who get most things in that type of scenario. Won’t people in the poorer parts of Manchester, where there’s greater apathy or people are simply worried about more day-to-day living issues get pushed to one side. Yes, and we’ve got to guard against that. And we’ve got to make sure we empower those communities as well. But there are – for example in North Manchester, around Harpurhey, Cheetham Hill, some really active residents’ groups in those areas. And I think how we bring those on board, and how we support them is [crucial]. It’s a consultation strategy that actually means something, and that’s what we’ve got to do I think.
Is that in your manifesto?
Two last questions on local democracy, and then I want to ask some questions about substantive green issues. One of your councillors, Victor Chamberlain in Chorlton, has taken it upon himself to start listing the planning applications in his ward. Now, I think that’s a corking idea. Is that something we’re going to see other Liberal Democrat councillors do on their websites, if they have them. And is that something that you would hope and expect Labour councillors to do the same?
Yeah, I think so. Certainly if there’s a planning application in my ward I don’t just put on my website, I actually write to the people who live in that area and I tell them about it, and I know that Victor and other Liberal Democrat councillors do that as well. So yes, I think that is a good idea and it is something that, again, that people can think about it – not just to complain about it. Because people might go “wow, that’s a brilliant idea. I like that development, what a great idea. It’s a long overdue thing, I want to write in and support it.” So it’s not just about opposing everything that’s happening. So yeah, that is a good example of how you actually empower people by giving them information about things that are happening in their local area so they can make an informed decision about issues in their area that matter. And Liberal Democrats are very committed to doing that, and we do do that all the time. I know councillors are always writing about planning issues – it’s a big part of the work that we do. And also, there are Labour councillors who do that as well. I’m not going to be partisan about it and say “we’re doing everything right and they’re doing everything wrong.” It doesn’t work that way. But I think it should be good practice across the board.
Ward plans are apparently out in draft by the end of February, or certainly by March. Are they something that you encourage, and are they something that you’re going to encourage your sitting councillors and candidates to publicise, scrutinise and critique?
Yes. Ward plans have been in the making for quite some time. In fact, they have been around for a fair while actually, they’ve may just not be very widely known. As ward councillors in those areas they will be heavily involved in scrutinising, and drafting and working with officers to make sure they reflect the priorities of the local community. So that’s a good process, an important process, but the missing link is … money. If you have a ward plan that says “we want to do these wonderful things, and we want to see this area develop or change in this way”, that’s fine, but where’s the money that’s going to back that up. We want to see money devolved to local neighbourhoods. Not huge sums of money, but we want to be able to see significant sums of money, that local councillors, with local residents, supported within the local plan, can actually decide to allocate. So, for example, if you see some waste land that could be taken over and used as new green space – at the moment the process for getting that done in the council is enormously complex and bureaucratic. And if it doesn’t come across the desk of Richard Leese or Sir Howard Bernstein it ain’t gonna happen. So, we’ve got to change that, so that locally we shift that power downwards and that there is money available to local communities – with proper safeguards and checks- that can be spent to improve local neighbourhoods. So there needs to be some teeth to those local plans, in my view. And that is what we would want to do.
Shifting on to the inevitable elephant in the room… Would Manchester Airport continue to expand, and would the Airport City scheme happen under a Liberal Democrat administration. And if yes, what about the carbon emissions? And if no, what about the money?
(Laughs). First of all, the airport is an hugely important economic driver. Not just for the city, but also for the Greater Manchester area, the North West and for the north of England. It’s probably the most economic driver in terms of transport hubs that the region has. We’re not about to say “it’s a dreadful evil thing, we must try to curb it.” That would be wrong. But any development, or any plans to develop the airport has to be done in a way that is sensitive, and respects the environmental as much as possible.
Now, I have met with the Airport on a number of occasions, and I do know that they talk very honestly, very openly about having environmental issues at the heart of their agenda. It’s not just about “let’s unleash, let them rip and do what they want.” It has to be sustainable development. I think every development plan around the airport has to be very carefully scrutinised to make sure that it fits in with the overall climate change agenda. But we have to recognise, particularly in the current economic situation, that jobs and growth are important. And there’s no doubt that the Airport City plan is a key element to that. Now precisely how that can be done to make sure how that can be done sustainably needs to be looked at very carefully. But no, we’re not just about simply giving the Airport [permission to do] whatever they want to do. But neither are we about trying to kill our economic prospects by putting so many blocks or hurdles or obstacles in the way of airport development that it isn’t able to grow in a reasonable and proper way.
Moving on from the Airport. The Climate Change Action Plan that’s been accepted has two headline goals. One is to reduce the City of Manchester’s emissions by 41 percent by 2020. The other is to create a ‘low carbon culture’. In your view, what sorts of things could be done – by yourself, by your party, by the people of Manchester – and by the readers of MCFly – to create a low carbon culture.
25 words or less.
Well there’s certainly lots of evidence to suggest that there’s lots of things that local authorities, and public bodies, can be doing to create that low carbon culture in terms of the way they do business, the way in which they promote development – are you doing it in the most environmentally sustainable way, that doesn’t jeopardise jobs, but also respects the environment for the longer term. I think there are lots of things that we should do. Some of those things are around the massive regeneration of the Town Hall complex itself. The way in which that development is being looked at, in terms of future energy saving, in terms of the materials that are being used… that’s really a very good agenda, that we ought to be encouraging. It’s not just about what’s in the Council’s ownership, but how it works with its partner agencies, and how it can influence and make sure that its other agencies are also operating in that same way to create . The problem – there’s always a tension in Manchester – because we’re living in an area where there’s been economic deprivation for many decades, the priority and the focus has always been on jobs and growth. And it’s quite right and understandable that that has been done, but I don’t think it necessarily has to mutually exclude the issues around sustainability and the right environmental culture. And I think there are many examples from other parts of the world – particularly in Canada actually – where that can be done. And I think it’s about having the commitment to make sure that’s done, and not just having a document that says ‘well, here’s our climate change strategy’, but that is actually ingrained in everything that people do, not just an add on.
I think that comes politically from the leadership of the council, from the way that officers work, and also from organisations like yourself, by challenging and prodding us, and scrutinising the work that goes on, has a role to play. I would like to see more of that to be honest, than what we have, and I think that helps to drive change. That makes people sit up and think ‘well, are we doing enough about that issue, could we be doing more?”
Now, the answer might be ‘yeah, I think we’re on the right track’ but it does make people sit up. When any political party – Labour, Liberal Democrat, whoever – is in power, the tendency, especially if they’re over-dominant – is to think ‘our way is the only way’. That is a huge mistake for any political party. And that is the challenge, I think, in terms of how you create that sustainability; people have to hold us to the promises that we make.
I’ll come back to the Council’s Town Hall retrofit, because that was one of the council’s “catalytic actions”. At full Council on Wednesday (1st February), at the back of the Great Hall, there was a group of workers holding banners saying that one of the contractors for the Town Hall retrofit has been using a blacklist.
I don’t like that word, but anyway…
My question is this. Do the Manchester Liberal Democrats have a statement, a position, on that particular dispute.
No, we would want to know some more facts first of all. It’s very easy to for people to assert that there’s some sort of boycott, or some sort of anti-union agenda here. If that is true,then want to see some evidence to support that. I think the Council should look into it. At the end of the day, either Richard Leese, or Councillor Jeff Smith, who heads up the finance side, should look into the allegations and find out whether that’s true. Now, clearly as far as I’m concerned, any organisation, or any contractor, that operates in an anti-union manner – well, first of all it’s illegal, and secondly we shouldn’t be having any truck with it, and we should be leading that aspect. So that’s our position. And we would call upon the Council to look at those allegations and see whether they are true or not. And if they are, then we need to question [as to] well, why are we involved with companies that are engaged in that sort of practice.
Three more questions from the meeting on Wednesday. It struck me that the Liberal Democrats in Manchester have the problem that all oppositions have – it’s that you’re not really incentivised to come up with good ideas, because if you do, you have to put them on notice weeks in advance – plenty long enough for the sitting powers to steal your ideas – phone up a friendly journalist at the Manchester Evening News and the claim them as their own.
I’m sure Labour Parties in other councils, in opposition, have the same problem
And Labour in opposition nationally have the same problem.
Does that have an effect on the Liberal Democrats in Manchester’s willingness and enthusiasm to think ‘outside the box’ – if they know their best ideas are simply going to get pinched?
No, we’re not precious about that. If we come up with a good idea and the Council goes ‘yeah, okay we like that, we’ll take it on’ we’re pleased…. We’re not that tribal …. the Twenty’s Plenty campaign, for instance… Victor Chamberlain came to the group and said ‘I think we should be doing something on this – the group backed him. He put the motion down, he did the research, and he got the Council to agree to it. That’s fantastic, and the sort of thing I want to encourage and see happen. And we were pleased that . It’s quite unusual for the Council to decide to do something like that. And there’s been other examples like that. We ran a very long campaign about wanting to disregard war pensions in terms of benefits that widows received…. The Council initially resisted it, and then finally they changed their mind. So, we’re pleased that that happens. That’s the job of opposition – to find those issues that matter to local people, take them up. And if we’re not in a position to introduce them ourselves, to say to the leadership, look this is an important issue.
Another example is residents’ parking scheme in the city centre. That’s something I’ve been banging away for since 2000, when I got elected. Now the Council’s finally going to introduce something. So we’re pleased when that happens, because it means as an Opposition we’re having an impact. Of course we’d like to have more councillors to be able to do it ourselves. But if we can’t do that, then small gains can make a difference. Doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does, we’re not going to moan about it too much.
And that leads into the next question – and you’ll forgive my ignorance of the procedural details. There was a moment at which the agenda was “Questions on notice to Exec members” and someone had a dig at you for not having put a question on notice about city centre parking. Is “Questions on notice to Exec members” something that the Liberal Democrats could make more use of in full council, which is …their most public-facing opportunity to get items talked about.
Well it is, and certainly we have. Actually last Wednesday was unusual in that we didn’t have any questions – usually there would be two, three or even four or five questions that we would put down. But the problem is that I am not necessarily sure … it’s all about set-piece, it’s a bit like Prime Ministers’ Questions in a way … how valuable it is is open to question.
That question that came from one of the Labour Councillors was a set-up question. Which is fine – all these things have an element of theatre. I think sometimes what goes on behind the scenes, the questions that councillors are raising with officers, are more important, and the public may not see a lot of that. But, equally, we might be taking those issues up on behalf of people, asking those questions continually
But yes, we do make use of the public question time when we can. We’ve done that in the past, and I can think of a number of issues where we’ve asked it around libraries, future of Heaton Hall etc.
It was my first full council. Final question from Wednesday. I’m not sure how aware you are of an open letter that was sent to the Employment, Economy and Skills Overview and Scrutiny Committee in November last year. It’s a long story, but it started with Victor Chamberlain, whose name has come up several times today, inviting me to speak at an EES meeting, in November 2010. A piece of work was promised by council officers around what a steady-state economy would mean for Manchester. That piece of work was eventually produced in November 2011, and an open letter was generated and sent by I think 10 of us, saying while we welcomed the report it was slightly shorter than we’d hoped for and that we would be willing to work with the council to produce a more substantive piece of work on the implications of a steady state economy. On Wednesday, one of your councillors, Lev Eakins, chose to represent this open letter as a demand that the Council adopt a steady state economy which would be quote disastrous unquote. I’m just curious if he was speaking for himself or if Manchester Liberal Democrat policy is opposed to even the sort of scoping work that is not intended to become a policy pronouncement around steady-state.
I think I understand the question. I don’t know the particulars of the open letter or the report, so you’ll have to forgive me for not knowing the detail. I’m quite happy to go away and have a look at that , that’s the first thing. The second thing is that no, Manchester Liberal Democrats are not wholly opposed to the idea of a sustainable economic development in the city. The third thing is that we need to create jobs – we all accept that – but that needs to be done in a responsible and a sustainable way. And the fourth thing is that I too am somewhat skeptical about this mad rush for growth [this idea] that any growth is good growth. And I said in my speech on Wednesday that it’s no good us just setting the reset button and going back to the boom years of the 80s and the 2000s. That’s not what we want to do. That’s not sustainable economic growth in my view. We need to try to find a new way of creating an economy that is sustainable, that helps raise living standards, creates jobs. That’s what we’re about as Liberal Democrats. Now, I’m not quite sure what Lev was referring to, to be honest, but I’m quite happy to ask him about it… I am interested in how you create that economic growth. I think that is key to the future of the city- not just Manchester but other cities as well.
Thank you very much. Traditionally at this point I say “any other questions – anything you were thinking I was going to ask, or afraid I was going to ask”
I thought you might have asked about the debate we’re going to have in the coming months about whether Manchester should have a mayor or not. That I think is going to dominate the papers and the media, because it’s leading up to these referendums. I think in a way it’s a bit of a red herring. I think that at the Greater Manchester level there is perhaps an argument to be made for saying perhaps we should have a mayor, just like London has a mayor, and some of the other larger conurbations, because there are some things that I think there is a democratic deficit. The ten leaders get together at a Greater Manchester level and decide things for themselves. But my question to them is, if they’re doing a crap job, how do we get rid of them. And the answer is you can’t. Now that’s not right, and I think if there was an elected mayor, directly elected by the people of Greater Manchester, where you can say that guy or that woman is doing a great job, then that I think would help restore democracy. It’s not about creating another bureaucracy, because we already have things happening at a Greater Manchester level.
It’s giving some democratic accountability. That’s the referendum we should be having
Rather than a Manchester level one?
Rather than a Manchester one, or a Salford one, or a Tameside one.
Keep up the good work. Well done for challenging politicians and the Council. More power to your elbow and good luck.