Marc Hudson, writing with his Manchester Climate Monthly hat on, ponders the recent past and the near future of his adopted home.
There are adults reading this who were not born when Richard Leese – after 6 years as deputy leader of Manchester City Council – got the top job in early 1996. Shortly after the IRA exploded an enormous bomb and the city was shaken literally and psychically.
We can look back now and it seems “obvious” that Manchester would thrive. But it wasn’t obvious at the time, and the recovery was by no means assured. The willingness of the City Council, led by Leese, to form close relationships with central government and business elites (a process that had started under Leese’s predecessor, Graham Stringer) has shaped the city. There have been visible winners, and more invisible and invisibilised losers.
Leese’s control has been pretty absolute (to the chagrin of various Labour councillors who have come and gone), and he has never needed to do any cross-party horse-trading that other leaders have had to do. There’s only been one brief period, in early 2010, after he accepted a police caution for common assault, where it seemed it all might end in tears.
But Leese is clearly nearer the end of his period of office than its beginning (or so hope many). And the cracks are beginning to show. Last year’s report into the horrible failures around child protection, Operation Augusta saw murmurings about Leese needing to resign break through.
Three signs of the times outside Crumpsall, Manchester
There have been three intriguing developments over the last two weeks.
Firstly, Leese turned up unexpectedly at the Resources and Governance Scrutiny Committee meeting on Tuesday 9th February. This was the meeting where Chloe Jeffries from Climate Emergency Manchester (and, full disclosure, Chloe is a friend and we are both members of the core group of CEM), was presenting the case for a dedicated Scrutiny committee. In July last year, Leese had dismissed it as tokenism. Ever-the-consumate-survivor, now he had, to use a term, changed his tune: or had it changed for him. Marion Smith from CEM made a fine video about this.
Can the new committee’s remit and membership be so tightly controlled as to contain the awkward questions about the Council’s actual policies and actions? Probably (hopefully!) not…
Secondly, a planning application for another skyscraper (see brilliant reporting by Jonathan Schofield in January and also Andrea Sandor in February, in Manchester Confidential) was withdrawn on the day it was supposed to go through. And the nickname for this excrescence? Tombstone. Could you make it up?
And finally, the City Council is now nursing a serious bloody nose, having been defeated in court by Trees Not Cars over a car park on the Great Ancoats Street plot which the Council borrowed serious money to buy. (See Niall Griffiths in the Manchester Evening News).
These three might add up to what the Americans like to call a “nothing burger.” Or they might be indicative – or stitchable-together-afterwards – of the beginning of “the end.. But – and this is my key/final point – what end?
What is to be done?
I know it is difficult (no, seriously, I know as well as anyone, and better than many), but we must not “take this personally. ” We must not imagine that the things we find intensely disappointing and frustrating about Manchester City Council will end when Leese’s reign ends. “Leese-ism”, for want of a better term, will surely prove far more resilient than that.
So, the only way forward is to keep making moves to stay in the game (to quote Keane). To learn, to teach, to sustain our morale. To make common cause where we can.
The city needs a new vision. The inward investment/”sustainability fix” that served well (for some) since the 1990s is played out. New visions are very hard thing and scary things to do, because people who have visions aren’t always visionaries. Sometimes they’re just crackpots. And to quote an infamously cynical and brutal opportunist, Niccolo Machiavelli
“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”
On Monday, one of my few heroes, Noam Chomsky, is giving a talk on Democracy, Neoliberalism and Climate Change. I’ve written about that on Climate Emergency Manchester (I am a member of the core group). I’ll end this post with a quote of Chomsky’s that has always made enormous sense to me, and that I’ve tried to use as a guide to how I “do” my citizenship, and how I try to encourage/enable/support/hector other folks to do theirs.
People look at the Manchester Climate Change “Agency” and are lost in figuring out how it relates to the other bits of the puzzle; who funds it, who scrutinises it, who sets the direction, who is – ultimately -responsible. And they wonder if the confusion is an accident.
Sure, you should usually go for “cock-up” over conspiracy, but in this case….
the secrecy, the opaqueness, the lack of accountability? Those are all features, not bugs. It was designed for this. It is functioning exactly as intended. As a camoflague stabvest lightning rod. It’s doing exactly what it is supposed to. Fooling the taxpayer, with taxpayer funds, no less (1).
Between 2010 and 2015 the Council had failed to have a “stakeholder steering group” that even so much as allowed stakeholders to observe. The “Agency” was set up as a community interest company at the end of this period. Fun fact – they are immune from the Freedom of Information Act. Such luck!
The very question of who gets to be a stakeholder is crucial, and when it comes to Manchester, easy. As long as you are willing to be a cheerleader. That’s what they mean when they say “stakeholder.”
Yeah, look, academics will take get hold of this and they will dress it up “sociologists invent words than mean ‘industrial disease’.” And they will say Ranciere-this and Badiou-that and governmentality maybe and Foucault and capillary power. Some may even manage to squeeze Bourdieu and the whole habitus in too, if they’re determined.
Let’s cut to the chase – “stakeholder” has three syllables. So, we need another easy phrase that explains what stakeholders – in the city council’s version – are.
It has to be in commonly understood, and no more than three syllables.
I’ll give you two “cheerleader” and “human shield.”
If you are willing to lobotomize yourself, refuse to remember last year’s promises, and just applaud and say, “Oh, you know, finally the council is moving, these things take time” then you may have the honour and the privilege of being an approved stakeholder. If however, you have two brain cells to rub together and or a spine, or God forbid both, and you challenge the council about last year’s promises and shifting baselines, then you are part of the – here’s another three syllables – “awkward squad” and you are no longer a stakeholder You are a troublemaker a malcontent.
And that, my friends is how democracy is played. Now, it’s not unique to Manchester. But there are several factors that make the use of this tactic in Manchester, particularly easy and particularly persistent. But that’s for another time.
(1) “Am I buying a stick to beat myself with, or contributing to party funds?” sings TV Smith. Quite.
This morning the Resources and Governance Scrutiny Committee heard from Chloe Jeffries of Climate Emergency Manchester (full disclosure – Dr Jeffries is a friend, and we are both core group members of CEM).
CEM is campaigning for proper scrutiny of the City Council’s climate (in)actions. In their public pronouncements the Council’s elected leaders are forever proclaiming that climate change is at the heart of the Council’s decision-making.
A month ago, the City Council announced it was taking car parks back into their own control. A Freedom of Information Act request was submitted.
I think we all know where this is going. Last things first – here’s the final question.
4. Please provide any documentation where the Council tried to square the circle of needing income from these car parks with its declaration of a climate emergency and therefore trying to encourage people to use public transport which is, generally, less carbon intensive. Documentation might mean reports, minuted discussions etc. I mean, surely SOME discussion about this was held, at some time, between someone and someone else? The Council do not hold this information.
Other questions I asked –
1. What were the “higher than anticipated costs” mentioned in the article which mean that “£4000,000 is shaved off the expected income”? Was this lawyers fees? Was the catering bill for the handing over ceremony unexpectedly high? Something else? The higher than anticipated costs were for operating costs, Manchester City Council in its preliminary assessment used cost estimates to indicate what costs would be associated with bringing the operation of Off Street Car Parks in house. Later in the process, the estimates were replaced with actual operating costs and estimates revised.
2. Is this a decrease in anticipated income for EVERY year, i.e. the calculated income is now 4.1m instead of 4.5m? The Council do not hold this information.
3. Has any assessment been done of how such errors in estimating costs can be avoided in future, since it isn’t as if the Council has a load of money to throw around. The Council do not hold this information.
The report “Call for city roads to be ‘pedestrian only'” (M.E.N., 4 February) was both simultaneously hopeful and fundamentally depressing.It’s hopeful because the tide may be turning after decades of Manchester City Council’s pro-car obsession (though we shall see – they have recently taken NCP car parking back in-house and aim to make serious money from it).
The response from the Executive has been to point to the City Council’s own emissions reductions – which are basically a side-effect of ten years of Tory austerity, while blame-shifting and abjuring responsibility (so much for “leadership.”)
The response from councillors – with a very few honourable exceptions – has been been silence. Others have allowed themselves to be diverted into questions around litter-picking and tree-planting.
Clean air and safe streets matter, of course they do. But humans have a tendency to focus on problems that are relatively easy to solve, while simply ignoring the tricky ones. That is what happening here. It’s not good enough.
Future generations (and indeed today’s young people) will not forgive us.
Your article “73 seconds to tragedy” (M.E.N., 31 January) was a good reminder of the Challenger Space Shuttle’s destruction.
The night before the shuttle was torn apart high above Florida, the engineers for Morton Thiokol, the company that built its booster rockets held a meeting with their own management and with NASA. They begged for the launch to be postponed, because the temperatures were so low that they knew there was a very high risk of failure of the rubber “o-rings” which were supposed to stop fuel leakage. Some expected the Shuttle to blow up on the launchpad.
They presented their case. Eventually, they were excluded from the meeting and the management of their company and the management of NASA agreed to… ignore them and push on with the launch.
Seven lives were lost the following day.
One of the engineers, Roger Boisjoly, spent the rest of his life explaining how that had happened, and the dangers of ignoring data.
The lesson is that political considerations and the need to look good can overwhelm the need to do what is needed, not what is convenient.
Back in 2005 Manchester City Council divested itself of responsibility for some social housing (the EU was making all sorts of inducements available, and this was peak-Blair too). Well, the “experiment” ended in tears, as reported by a journo for the Manchester Evening News.
I wrote to email@example.com, saying I was invoking the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and giving my name and address.
I started – “I was fascinated by the article which just appeared in the Manchester Evening News (13 Jan) on Manchester city council and Northwards Housing. I have a couple of questions (well, 4).” And below are my questions in italics and the responses (three answers and a dodge – not a bad ratio, but the questions were gimmes, mostly).
Who was leader of the Council in 2005 when the decision to hive off responsibility for housing into an “ALMO” was made?
Councillor Richard Leese
Who was the Executive Member with responsibility for this portfolio (whatever it was called back then).
Councillor Eddy Newman
How much did the consultants Campbell Tickell get for their report.
Are additional scrutiny mechanisms going to be put in place, or is the existing scrutiny regarded as adequate?
This last is of course a classic dodge. So I have written back –
Dear Sir/Madam, Thank you for your answer to my FOIA FOI/3725 I am not satisfied with you response to question 4 – it is a response that does not address the question. I invite you to answer the question. Thanks Marc Hudson
Two weeks later a letter was published in the MEN – even that didn’t get CEM an acknowledgement of its labour and ideas.
If you are “adopted” by the Council, there seem to be two possibilities
Firstly, Manchester City Council will draw you into what looks like their ‘decision making’ processes- they use you as a long-term fig leaf. The price of staying “inside” is twofold. First you have to defend their indefensible inaction. This will strip you of your morale, and – more importantly – your credibility with broader civil society. Secondly (and this is never explicitly stated), you must not activate your organisations supporters to apply pressure. The role that your organisation could and should have fulfilled- co-ordinating, galvanising, leading – will not be done
This – whether they want to admit it or not (and they don’t, of course) – is the experience of Manchester Friends of the Earth on climate change. Sure, there is the work on divestment, or fracking, but on the bread and butter issue of what is actually being done on climate change locally, in each of the ten local authority areas (as opposed to what is promised, or what credit is being taken for external factors that have lowered local emissions – austerity and the move from coal at a national level)- a deadly and deadening silence.
Secondly, they will use you as a temporary (though they don’t tell you this in advance) fig leaf, dropping you when the initiative you have poured your heart, soul and countless hours into becomes even potentially inconvenient. That is, they will let you do a whole lot of very hard work, use you relentlessly for publicity purposes, and as soon as there is even the slightest pushback, the slightest difficulty, they will drop you while claiming they haven’t.
This, I think (as an outside observer), has been the experience of the Levy Bee Network
All this betrays a total lack of ompetence and courage – and now the credibility – to be part of progressive society moves for a better world. Who in their right minds is going to want to work with the Council now? There must, surely, be councillors who are aghast at this latest cock-up. While they will not speak publicly, hopefully they are making their views very forcefully known behind the scenes. Fun fact – the Manchester Labour Party will at some point be having its AGM (maybe November now?) and various Executive Member roles are up for grabs.
And this, remember, is a Council made up of 93 nominally “Labour” politicians, a party that once – a very long time ago – was about changing things for the better.
Finally, this occasionally I get criticised – or hear second hand of criticism – for failing to “work with the Council.” Well, number one I tried (see 2008-2012, and even as late as 2014). But there is a big number two in all this – why would ANYONE want to with an machine that has three settings, that leaves you unused, useless or else used-up-and-spat-out?
What is to be done?
In the short term, those outraged by the Levy Bee Network cowardice should write to all the members of the Neighbourhoods and Environment Scrutiny Committee, calling for it to be raised as urgent business at the next NESC meeting on Weds 22nd July. You can find a list of the councillors, their emails and Twitter accounts here.
Longer-term – we as activists, campaigners, citizens need better skills and knowledge, better networks to collaborate and co-ordinate. The “Active Citizenship Toolkit” project for CEM (I am lead on it) is one way to do that. Groups that actually want to be better at what they do could have a long hard look at that and push past any excuses they have, and get in touch to be ‘crash test dummies’ for it.
1. “Transgression” is your first novel – can you say a bit about how it came about, what you hope readers will take away?
The genesis of the novel was strange. The plot and characters appeared, pretty much fully formed, in my mind when I came round from a major operation three years ago. It was as if the anaesthetic or perhaps the morphine had released something from the unconscious. More generally however, the novel deals with political events and experiences that had a big impact on me personally. Although these events – the political agitation in the run-up to Copenhagen and the devastating failure of the negotiations – are only ten years ago I’ve been struck by how much of that period has been forgotten in the grim grind of austerity. Most of the people I meet in XR for example are completely unaware of their predecessors, of the size of the climate movement of that time and of its successes (the near-closure of the UK coal industry, the rejection of a third runway at Heathrow for example) as well as the failures. The (in my view misguided) idea of some in XR that everything that went before was useless probably has something to do with this. But many of those involved at that time were angry, clever, inventive and innovative and many of the techniques used by XR were honed and developed by those who were involved in the earlier period. It was also a time when the whole movement was much broader and more connected I think, with more overlap between people engaged in different aspects or approaches. My aim in writing the novel was primarily to tell a story however and I hope that what readers will take away is the satisfaction that comes when you read a novel that speaks to you in some way.
2. It’s obvious where you got the knowledge for the psychoanalysis scenes, but the activist scenes read pretty well too – for instance you’re particularly strong on the emotions around big actions and meetings, both “positive” and negative” – how did you do the research for them?
Over the years I’ve talked a lot with my son and his partner and some of their friends about their involvement in the kind of climate activism that features in the novel, so that was the primary source, along with my own involvement with more community based action where there was a lot of overlap between people taking part in direct action and people doing more conventional stuff. Something which provided additional background was a piece of research I did which explored the quite different emotional experiences of climate activists and climate scientists. The characters however are the products of my imagination. When you write fiction you become a thief – you steal stuff from everyone you know – an incident that your transform, a personality trait that finds its way into a character for instance – but most of this happens unconsciously. Once a character has formed in your mind, that character writes themselves. The actual incidents – climate camp, the ambush of the train, the occupation of the open-cast mine for example – are a mash-up of events that actually happened but transposed in place and time. If you were there you will probably identify what I’ve drawn on and be either pleased or irritated at what I’ve done with it.
3. There are some characters (no spoilers) who are particularly caught up in their own views of the world, who don’t seem to be able see things from anyone else’s point of view, and thus do quite a lot of damage to those they purport to love and serve. They are also the most prominent (but by no means only!) male characters – was that a conscious (!) decision?
Thomas (the transgressive psychotherapist) is perhaps an amalgam of all the bad men I’ve ever known, all the male arrogance, all the sense of entitlement, all the blindness to reality. I did want him to seem real however and I hope that the reader gets glimpses of another side to him. Similarly with Jake, I wanted the reader to see how powerful self-deception and self-duplicity can be as well as how destructive. I hoped that some of the other male characters – Felix for instance with his wounded sensitivity, or Stefan with his skilled good sense – would provide another side to the portrayal of masculinity.
4. We’re ten years on now from the events in the book – either side of the Copenhagen conference and the revelation that the UK environment movement was riddled with police spies. Any plans to revisit the same characters, or to write another novel in light of the deteriorating situation?
A number of people have asked me what happens to the characters in the novel and how I would write a sequel but at present I don’t have any plans to follow them up. I suspect that their later lives might be much less interesting than the events of ‘Transgression’. Felix and Clara in particular are at a turning point in life, they have all the hope of youth and face all the disappointment of a bitter political reality. I’m not sure I could write the sequel to that at present.
The current deteriorating climate situation is of course so inflected by the Covid-19 crisis that it feels much too early to be able to put anything intelligent into words of any kind, let alone fiction – but who knows. At the moment I’m working on another novel which is set during the cold war and maybe by the time I’ve discovered whether that one will work and whether I can finish it I will find it in myself to write more fiction about the climate crisis.
5. Anything else you’d like to say?
There’s been a lot of fiction written about the kind of future we might face as a result of climate change, most of it understandably dystopian and I’ve often wished that there was more fiction about what this issue feels like now, what it feels like to live it. Although ‘Transgression’ is set a little bit in the past my hope is that it gives imaginative space to what it feels like to be involved politically in this most desperate of issues. So much of what people talk to me about at present is the same as what people felt ten and fifteen years ago – the anger, the distress, the anxiety, the sense of your world being reshaped, the need to throw over your existing life and commit yourself, the fear that we will not succeed in stopping this. There was perhaps a little more hope then but the devastation that came with Copenhagen and the imposition of austerity was immense, greater than anything I’ve seen since. So perhaps my hope is that as well as creating a good story I’ve given space for some of the feelings and experiences of the climate movement to be validated imaginatively.
Groundwork is a federation of charities mobilising practical community action on poverty and the environment across the UK. In Greater Manchester, our vision is of a greener, more resilient City Region with stronger, healthier communities, responsible businesses and enhanced prospects for all local people. We work across Greater Manchester and surroundings districts helping communities find practical solutions to the challenges they face. We provide training and create jobs, reduce energy and waste, reconnect people with nature, build bridges within communities and transform whole neighbourhoods.
Over recent years, we have delivered environmental youth leadership and social action programmes, community-led climate and nature programmes and worked with businesses to reduce their carbon impact and be more efficient and resilient. We believe that the time is right to take our work to the next level so have created a new post of Climate Action Lead. The successful candidate will be passionate about the environment, sustainability and inspiring people to be part of the solution to climate change.
This post is part funded by Young Manchester.
Main purpose of the post:
To champion climate change activism internally across the Trust and externally in networks and partnerships, sharing learning and drawing on international best practice.
To be responsible for the successful delivery and reporting of Groundwork GM’s outcomes as part of the Young Manchester’s strategic leadership and sector co-ordination programme.
To further position Groundwork GM as the trusted provider of community and youth activism in responding to climate change, including carbon reduction and the importance of green and blue infrastructure in mitigating the impact.
Please submit a CV and covering letter, outlining what motivates you to apply for this job and the key skills and experience you bring, to firstname.lastname@example.org by 9am Monday 6th April 2020.
We also request that you complete our Equal Opportunities Form however please note that completion of this form is voluntary. Any information collected is used only for the purposes of monitoring the implementation of our Equality and Diversity policy and procedures during recruitment and selection. The information is not used in any way to inform the shortlisting process. Data is held securely and is not provided to any member of the selection panel.
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