Interview with Sir Richard Leese, Jan 2012

This is a rush transcript of an interview conducted with Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, on Jan 31st 2012 by MCFly co-editor Marc Hudson and MCFly volunteer Mark Haworth. Over the coming days it will be “tidied up” and hyperlinks added.

Why is the “Airport City” Enterprise Zone such a good idea?
Create jobs. We still have a need in Manchester, if we are going to continue tackling what’s quite deep-seated levels of deprivation that have really arisen out of the collapse of the traditional manufacturing industry. We have to increase skill levels, and we have to continue to create more jobs. At the moment it’s partly to compensate for the loss of jobs within the public sector that are going to continue for a number of years. I think Airport City, not just in connection with the airport, in a few years it will also link into the tram system, the rail network network… For certain industries,for certain aspects of industry, it would be a very good location. And it’s about adding to what we have in Manchester

You’re not worried about “abstraction” – the sucking in of jobs from elsewhere, rather than the creation of new jobs?
Yes we are worried about it, and again, it’s one of the advantages of Airport City. Because most of the land we are talking about is either owned by Manchester Airport Group or the City Council, or by other public sector partners, we can control that, so we don’t simply displace jobs from one place to another. The history of the Enterprise Zones first time around was that that was all they did, and there’s no benefit in that. Land ownership is a very powerful tool within this, far more powerful than planning. It means we can control who can and who can’t come to that site.

When you say “who cannot come to this site” do you have anyone in mind…
Hypothetically, if there was a company in Cheshire or in Bolton that employed 60 people and just said ‘we’d like to move our sixty people to Airport City’ I think we’d be saying ‘No thank you very much.’ That’s not to say we wouldn’t have any relocation; if they employ sixty people and said “actually, we’re going to expand to 300 people” that might be a different thing.

And are these sorts of discussions being decided by yourself and other AGMA leaders?
We will probably in the next few weeks be setting up an Enterprise Zone Board which will exercise governance arrangements over that, and that will be City Council and other AGMA partners and other partners.

Does the prospect of higher fuel prices from “peak oil”, and therefore reduced volumes of travel, worry you?

It certainly worries the aviation industry, that’s for sure. Which is why for both airbus and boeing their new-engined planes which have far less fuel consumption are selling like hotcakes. To a certain extent, in the medium-term, you will see more and more technological solutions to those problems, rather than people not flying anymore…. Fuel prices will drive those technological improvements. What we are seeing from the new engines being talked about , they are quite significant improvements, not marginal

Final question on the airport; It’s 2014, and ”Green Power” sweeps to power in Manchester City Council, after the Labour Party melts down. They say they are going to stop expansion at Manchester Airport, and in fact shrink it. They succeed, over your dead body. What are the consequences for the people of Manchester?
Green Power will only last for one year. I’ve never tried to argue there aren’t emissions issues around airports and aviation. If that was to happen, all we would do is displace those flights to somewhere else. It wouldn’t actually stop those emissions. So we have to have far more rational ways of addressing those [issues]. It would be very bad news for the economy of Manchester, it would be very bad news for jobs, both short-term and medium-term. That policy wouldn’t last very long.

And good news for John Lennon airport?
Again, there’s two sorts of travel. And Manchester has predominantly always been a leisure airport, for people who want their fortnight in the sun. They will go to Liverpool, or Leeds-Bradford, or Birmingham; there are a range of choices there. In terms of other aspects of the economy, those companies and businesses for which international links are very very important, it would be the loss of the international scheduled flights that would be the real risk. Some of our growth in recent years has been Eitihad to Abu-Dabi, Emirates to Dubai, Qatari Airlines to Doha. All of which give links into China, and Australia. Those are the sorts of flights that are generating a lot of economic activity in the city in the way that leisure flights don’t do.

I interviewed you last in June 2010. What’s gone well in the climate agenda in Manchester and Greater Manchester since then?
I think the most significant step forwards since 2010 is we now have the Greater Manchester strategy, and we’ve got joining up of a quite large geographical area, a large population base. Lots of issues there, in terms of agreeing targets. Targets are the start of a process rather than the end of a process. You’ve got ten local authorities with different start lines, different metrics and so on. There’s been a lot of work to resolve that, and I think we’ve made a lot of progress there. So we now do have not entirely common,but reconcilable targets, across Greater Manchester. [and] now are moving into having an Action Plan for Greater Manchester as well.
Clearly within Manchester itself, we’re into our second year – coming up to our third year soon – of the City Council’s own action plan. Which was well-received enough for people to be arguing about the punctuation rather than the content, which is always a good place to be. For the City Council I think it’s two things – it’s transport and it’s buildings. I think we are making some real progress there. I think some very good work in terms of what will be longer-term benefits. The work around heat networks, smart grids, we’re making some real progress there. Rolling out charging points for electric vehicles – clearly charging points are only any use if electricity becomes low carbon as well.
There is a lot happening. I guess we’d all like for other partners, for more partners, to be engaged and have their own action plans. I think a change has started, but which will probably gather momentum, this year, is that when we drafted “Manchester: A Certain Future” the priority was very much about mitigation. I think that this year, having set loads of balls rolling, a lot more work is going to be going into adaptation, and almost certainly building on the sort of work done by Ecocities, and projects done around the Corridor, because I think there’s some very good stuff there.
You saw me get very excited last week about one of the things in “Certain Future.” One of the big things [in it] is about behaviour change. I think the work that’s being done about Carbon Literacy is very very exciting indeed. It’s stuff that I can see potentially really driving change.

You wrote in your blog that the city would be “a far better place as a result” – in what ways?
In two ways. The environment of the city will be better. I mean climate and so on. I recognise that Manchester doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but we know that in urban centres ground temperatures can often be two or three degrees higher than surrounding areas. If we can significantly succeed in changing behaviours, it would certainly have an impact on that.
But I think also, the city’s accepted for quite a long time, that, if you do it in the right way, having effective climate change strategy that people are signed up to, one of the aspects to that is growing a low carbon economy. The more that we get people signed up to this, the more good it will be for job creation, but job creation in that low carbon economy.

You mentioned things that have gone well, and somethings haven’t gone well – “circumstances beyond the Council’s control” – I’m thinking especially of the feed-in-tariff. Could you just mention some of other things that haven’t gone according to plan and comment on when it might be necessary to start using a little bit of stick as well as the carrot that has been used so far. I’m thinking particularly of implementation plans, because so far beyond the Council itself and Northwards Housing, the record isn’t good on going beyond signing Manchester A Certain Future and actually delivering an implementation plan.
I think where things are going wrong are more to do with central government than local government and local partners. We always accepted that to achieve our targets locally, some of that would require national action. If you look at things like public transport. If public transport succeeds in getting people to leave their cars behind, and instead of single drivers coming in, they’re using public transport, then it will reduce emissions. To get the maximum benefit we need to decarbonise the energy supply. The extent to which we’d be able to generate locally is always going to be limited. So there’s things that need action that’s probably national action, but certainly beyond the boundaries of Manchester. It seems to me that whatever the rhetoric, the government has put their green programme a little bit on the back-burner, because business has lobbied them on the basis that being green is bad for business. I simply don’t accept that [point of view], but I think that’s happening.
If we are going to have sticks rather carrots, I think some of the carrots like the Green [Investment] Bank are a little bit slow to emerge. It’s not clear that it’s going to be competitive at all… I think there are issues there. I don’t think we’ve got all the carrots yet, clearly
And the things we would like to have as sticks, like carbon budgeting, is something Government is resisting at the moment. But as we’ve done on carbon budgeting, and feed-in-tariffs we will continue, with others [take action]/ This isn’t particularly party political – we’ve joined with Conservative-led local authorities, Liberal Democrat local authorities to campaign for those things and will continue to do so.

You mentioned Annual Carbon Budgets, and this is something I find quite interesting, and potentially extremely useful. Last year the city council signed up to 10:10 campaign, and had said before they signed up that it was going to be very difficult. In the end they did hit 6 percent… do you see the annual carbon budget process as being a way of talking not just within the council, but beyond the council – to your supply chain and to other stakeholders about reducing carbon in a systematic year on year level.
Again, the target we set for the city of Manchester, the 41% target, was worked out by the Tyndall institute on the basis of ‘if this is a national target, what is Manchester’s contribution?’ The national target needs to be broken down, with who contributes what. At its simplest, carbon budgeting is being able to say on a place-by-place basis this is what you need to do, as a minimum, to reach that national target, building to a global target.
I think what it could do, as part of a legislative framework, even if it was only a permissive framework, it would tell every part of the country “this is what you’ve got to do.” I think that’s the impact it would have.
Certainly from a Manchester point of view it would help us when we are having discussions with stakeholders it would allow us to say this isn’t a figure we’ve just plucked from nowhere, it’s not a figure we’ve made up for ourselves – this is a figure that comes out of an analysis of what we need to do as a country.

Finally on the Climate Change Action Plan; Anything you’d have done differently in the last 18months, with the benefit of hindsight?
I don’t think there is anything that I’d do fundamentally differently. I guess always the frustration is with what appears to be slow progress. Some of it is slow. But take one of the big Greater Manchester projects, which is the desire to retrofit all of our domestic properties. Well, in the current environment it’s not easy, it is going to take time. So I think frustrations, rather than wrong directions.

Biodiversity – a questions from Dave Bishop, who helps run Friends of Chorlton Meadows; “Given that developers and their developments have now ‘concreted over’ so many of our remaining green spaces, where is all the wildlife going to live?”
First of all, developers haven’t concreted over so many of our green spaces. Sorry Dave, we are going to build Metrolink to Wythenshawe and the Airport, and it does mean crossing the Mersey Valley. Of course, there is a whole history of railways and similar developments protecting wildlife rather than destroying it – creating wildlife corridors because nobody goes on them. I know someone’s found rare orchids on the railway at Crumpsall. So those aren’t necessarily blots for diversity. If you look at what we’re working on for designs for new housing areas and so on, we are increasingly taking the best practice – mainly from Northern Europe – in terms of how we increase green, water management… increasingly within green spaces it won’t all be sculptured lawns and so. We have a greater use of tree planting species that will encourage insects and birds and so on. I think there is an awful lot going on, including the recently revised Biodiversity Strategy, which is maximising the use of the green space we have, and also recognises that wildlife doesn’t always behave the way we think it ought to. Urban foxes – are there more of them or not. Lots of people say it’s just about the same as it’s always been, it’s just that we see them more.
But no, we’re not concreting over everything, and we are planting – particularly trees – vast amounts of the city on a year-by-year basis

The Environmental Advisory Panel, on which we both sit , has been described – accurately – as “worthy and perhaps a little earnest rather than exciting.” Anything you think could be done about that?
…it’s been in existence for a few years now. I think it’s actually done a pretty good job. Again, let’s go back to carbon literacy. I don’t think that approach to carbon literacy, which is being done quasi-independently, would have happened if we didn’t have that sort of group. I’m not a great fan of navel-gazing, but it is probably about time that the Environmental Advisory Panel – and partners, ought to do a little bit of navel-gazing around ‘right, what’s the agenda for the next few years.’ Not spend too long on that… It’s very easy for institutional arrangements to get fixed without being quite clear what they exist for and I think any organisation needs to revisit what it’s doing on a relatively regular basis. The EAP hasn’t done that since it came into being, and it’s probably about due for looking at its relationship with the certain future Steering Group and other parts of what’s going on, and even looking at ‘do we have the right people sitting around the table anymore?’

What would you like to see local councillors – Labour and Lib Dem – doing to engage on the issue of climate change, both within the City Council and with their constituents?
There are two levels there. Clearly we need councillors to actively support strong environmental policies at the city-wide level. We do need buy-in to what it is that we are trying to do. We’ve talked about our biodiversity strategy, we’ve talked about “A certain future” [but there’s also] things like our Tree Cover survey that we did recently. Very powerful pieces of work, that are being followed up on. We do need people to understand those and sign up to that.
I think there’s a little bit of leading by example, as well. Not everybody’s going to be able to, even if they want to ride a bike, but there are behavioural things that I think councillors need to do. But also when it comes to a planning issue or other local issues they are engaged with. Every ward has a ward plan – it’s to ensure that climate change and environmental strategies are an integral part of those plans as well.

What do you think of the idea of a quarterly “question time” style event with senior representatives from the Council, business and “civil society” being quizzed by an audience of Mancunians? If someone set it up, would you be interested in being a panelist?
I think doing it on a quarterly basis it would probably go great the first time, not so well the second and by the third time you’d have had enough.

Every six months then?

I think we have about half a million people living in the city now. You can add in terms of regular users another few hundred thousand. There has to be a way of building a bigger engagement, and I’m not sure question time panels [are it]. The first time you do them they can generate publicity, generate interest, but it has to be different ways all the time, and repeating the same thing doesn’t tend to be the best model. What you tend to end up with is the same people talking to the same people.

What other engagement tools do you think might work, even if you only used them once or twice and then had to keep changing?
The whole gamut… social networking. Even things on paper from time to time. Events – a whole range of events – clean-up events. We use our educational programmes I think in terms of some of the bigger issues, when you’ve got significant research in the city [like Ecocities], it’s about getting that out and getting presenting it in a very public way… I think you just have to use the whole range of techniques for being able to reach people, to talk to people, and for them to be engaged.

Another hypothetical: Warren Buffet calls you up and says “Sir Richard, I’m sending you a cheque from my petty cash account. It’s for 10 million of your limey pounds. There’s only one condition – you have to spend it on things that will make a real difference environmentally, and you have to spend it in the next two years.”
If it’s only “ten million” – remember, we put a price on domestic retrofitting of 6 billion for Greater Manchester – there are big sums involved in this. So…

Call it fifty million.
No, take ten million. It’s not an insignificant sum of money, it’s what you do within the priorities that we’ve got. You’d want to put at least some of it into stuff where you think it would have a more than ‘when you’ve spent it, it’s gone’ [effect]. Some of it we would put into developing the educational programmes we’ve got. It’s big enough to make a significant difference in terms of behavioural change around transport. One of the things lost out of the TiF programme was a significant behavioural change programme, so I’d put some of it into that. And I think probably that you’d want to put some of it into piloting things that are potentially replicable. Developing, say, water features in existing areas that can store water rather than run off, and reduce temperatures at the same time. Looking at where we can use retrofitting of green roofs. Looking at stuff and saying “well let’s spend it this, and if it works here, other people might do the same or do similar things.” Or it might pump-prime some of the work we are trying to do around developing heat-networks

Anything else you’d like to add?
I suppose it’s positive really. You talked about EAP, the role of councillors, and so on. I think we have within the city, and within the city region, we have managed to maintain -it’s probably an inappropriate description – a head of steam around this. It’s about maintaining a sense of momentum, and we are doing that. I am certainly not self-congratulatory or complacent about that, but I think that in a relatively short period of time we have made a lot of progress. And I think we’ve managed to keep a lot of stakeholders working together who might not necessarily see themselves as natural partners with each other. I do think it’s important that we do keep that wide variety of stakeholders in the tent, working on a shared agenda.

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