The State Of The City – Manchester In 2017

Jonathan Schofield asks what might happen with an Elected Mayor and a departed Bernstein


CRANES, CHANGE, cranes, change.

Stand high anywhere in Manchester city centre and there are cranes everywhere, the hum and buzz of development is constant. Linger in one of the empty units in the city centre or in golden Chorlton, Didsbury, Hale (et al) and hold out your hand and a bar forms around you and a glass fills your palm. The chatter of conversation follows. Aside from shabby Piccadilly Gardens many of the main areas of city centre are becoming shiny. This is all very good. But then walk the streets and look more closely and the abandoned blankets of beggars pepper doorways waiting for the return of their owners, soup kitchens are busy. Linger in one of the empty units in Middleton, Openshaw, Gorton and wait and wait and wait, nothing forms around you, investment seems halted.

The balance can seem all out of whack, but then Manchester and Greater Manchester are urban areas, a city region. This is just what happens, yeah? Cities are just like that, made up of rich and poor, the comfortably off and then loads of those people who have been given that vile, trivialising acronym of JAMs, just about managing.

Yet as weird 2016 bites the dust there are changes afoot in the city and the region.

Neil McInroy, the chief executive of the Manchester-based Centre for Local Economic Studies, neatly sums these up.

“2017 will bring significant change of leadership in Greater Manchester,” he says. “At the end of March Sir Howard Bernstein steps down to be replaced by Joanne Roney, presently the Chief Executive of Wakefield City Council. In January, we should know who the new Chief Executive of Greater Manchester Combined Authority will be (the Combined Authority is an organisation bringing together the ten boroughs of the conurbation). And of course we will have a new Greater Manchester Elected Mayor in May.”

“Cities rest for no one,” McInroy continues, “and their stewardship requires a relentless energy, continually reacting to issues and spotting opportunities.  After forty five years at the town hall and eighteen as Chief Executive, Sir Howard exemplified those leadership qualities. However, Greater Manchester like any city area, surfs the waves and troughs of the national and global economy.  In this, we are in the midst of a new era of turbulence.  The relative economic buoyancy enjoyed in the nineties and noughties, has now been replaced with ongoing public austerity and cuts, Brexit and much more global economic uncertainty.”

Those sobering thoughts are exercising minds everywhere not just in Manchester or indeed, the UK. But how might we deal locally with these macro-matters, I ask McInroy.

“Reforming our public services and reducing demand on them, with declining budgets is a circle which will need squaring,” he says. “Also for all the undoubted economic and physical rejuvenation of our city centre, our transport system and economic hotspots, too many of our citizens are yet to enjoy the real fruits of the city’s success. As in many progressive cities around the world, the focus of the new leadership should be about developing the social fortunes alongside the economic.  Indeed, you need to do both to do either. In this, we need to reprioritise some public money.  For instance investment in pre-school is an investment in the wealth generators of the future. This should stand as equal alongside a new tramline. We need to incentivise big business, but also look to small business and new community cooperatives and ownership.  It’s about focussing more of what we have, not just what we can attract.”

Clare Devaney, director of research consultancy, Citizen-i Ltd, agrees a change of emphasis is needed in a year when a new city Chief Executive and a new Elected Mayor arrives.

“What the limited devolution that comes our way means in practice, is up to us,” she says. “I’m not sure it brings an opportunity as such, but we can make one – and there is certainly an opportunity to miss it, to roll with the status quo, for whatever power and funding we get to flow into the same machine, with the same outcomes. We are seeing the failure of that machine on our streets, in the levels of poverty grotesquely juxtaposed against the scale of development, and a recognition at a policy level that trickle-down growth may not be trickling down.”

“I think the focus on property and development has brilliantly supported Manchester’s growth,” she continues, “but it’s an approach which I think was very much of its time. Now it feels like there’s a need to reflect and to focus on what is missing from the city, and  in its public realm, in its aesthetic, in the bits between the buildings, in the visceral flow, the open spaces, in a lot of the new apartments that have been thrown up – it’s people. We need to retrofit the people into Manchester.”

Devaney goes on to list examples of new types of engagement with initiatives such as “The People’s Plan and DivaManc which are seeking to facilitate a diversity of voices in this space, and through a new platform called M4“. She wants to “democratise civic space, conceive a vision for the city that exists beyond that of the leadership, the developers, the corporates, the ‘decision-makers.”

Her frustration boils over with how supine the region has become with individuals taking a grip themselves.

“What’s astounded me is how hard it’s been for some people to understand how something can happen or come to exist without a commissioning body behind it; without a public or private institution as the creator or catalyst. We are so stuck in this passive paradigm. There’s an expectation that you must validate taking part in civic action beyond the legitimacy of just being a resident or a citizen.”

She pauses before explaining, “We have come to a point where citizenship in itself is seen as radical or dangerous – one to keep an eye on. I suspect, but refuse to believe, that Manchester has become a city that waits for permission. And similarly, that people struggle to have the confidence of their forebears to believe it is a city with the potential to be a global centre for change. It’s not enough to have it on a poster or a t-shirt – if we claim Manchester does things differently, then we need to show that, because currently it feels very much the same.

“There is a growing recognition of the importance of heritage, identity and place in sustainable city growth, a move from the notion of ‘place-based’ and engagement at distance, to ‘place-driven’, with people in the driving seat. There are some brilliant projects supporting citizenship and civic engagement happening in Detroit, in Barcelona, in Brazil, but little on the world stage in terms of citizen-led system change. Yet.”

I understand this frustration. As a writer in Manchester I have witnessed this deference as standard. I’ve witnessed it at corporate and civic breakfasts, lunches, teas, suppers, elevenses (whatever daft name they have) where the be-suited panel might have said, “And the next plan to be announced at MIPIM is to create the world’s largest cheese museum in Stevenson Square with £110m of government and local money.” The besuited audience would have sat there and said nothing and taken it on the chin.

I’ve had developers, architects, bankers and more say to me, off the bloody record, of course, that they needed the nod from the Knights in the Town Hall before they’d proceed. Why, I’d ask, and they’d look at me as though I’d taken leave of my senses. It’s been as though business and citizens have been children awaiting approval from their parents.

Mike Emmerich, well-known through his work in New Economy and now as director of Metro Dynamics, understands this point of view but thinks it needs to be put in context.

“It is time for a change of emphasis, but I’d still back the city’s approach thus far. When I started life in business coming from the Mersey Bank estate in south Manchester thirty years ago, the city was on its arse. Then, I think, in the very best traditions of British public policy and with people like Bob Scott (a businessman who drove the Olympic bids) and other exceptional individuals, the city was dragged out of the mire to being a good European city on the cusp of being a great European city. We’re not there yet.”

“Yes,” he continues, “we have a relatively weak business community, but this is where change needs to come. I look at the way the Germans tackle the issue and they have an institutional continuity of local, state, business, community cohesion. I feel we must keep stoking the fires of development, in the city centre, the Quays, the Airport, Port Salford and so on. We cannot have social progress without jobs. But, and this is key, we need to to look much harder and be braver in making sure that every part of the conurbation is part of that journey and every community feels it has access to jobs and a sense of vibrancy. We must make the other town centres of Greater Manchester better for example.”

Emmerich pauses a moment before saying, “I worry that we leap into unsustainable and ultimately useless capital investments that make markets and business do what they don’t want to do and can never achieve. There are too many capital projects that take place where it would have been better if the money had gone directly to people – a shiny new building might improve the appearance of an area but it doesn’t necessarily help people into work or into a better job. We do so much capital investment but we do so little on the human capital account. Insitutions find it hard to make a business case in accounting for humans.”


A big part of the problem here is that Manchester and the boroughs are so very compartmentalised. Emmerich mentions the nineteenth century middle class disapora from the central parts of Manchester as an action which has had dire consequences ever since. It’s something in my role as a tour guide I’m intimately acquainted with and which this magazine satirised in a recent Sleuth column in the paragraph titled, North Manchester Discovered.

Two instances of disengagement with the city make the problem plain.

During the 2015 Manchester International Festival I conducted a pub tour for a group of professionals who all work in smart city centre offices. At the end I led a brief quiz and one question asked which major event was taking place. Only a third knew the International Festival was happening despite banners down streets, lots of media coverage and a huge pointy pavilion in Albert Square. I kept it to myself but I was flabbergasted, annoyed. Why didn’t these people know? Why were so many of these wealthy influencers unaware of this wonderful festival taking place every two years? Why did they not feel pride in it?

Turned out that mostly they lived in Hale, Bowdon, Wilmslow, Bramhall; fill in as appropriate. It was so clichéd it was almost laughable. There was a disconnect with civic life. I made some subtle enquiries after the tour and it turned out many of them never came into the city centre except for work, never used the theatres, shops, restaurants in their leisure time.

Several years ago I led a free, subsidised coach tour of Manchester from Harpurhey shopping centre in North Manchester. The coach was packed with a mixed group of 18-80 year olds. Not one, and I mean not one, of these people had been to the Quays, Didsbury, Chorlton, the University area, Sportscity. “I didn’t know my city was this big,” said one guest. Apparently most people on the tour came into town for the Arndale and once a year hired a minibus, if they had enough money which was problematical, to Manchester Airport and then off to a Mediterranean resort.

This divide is stark. People live so close to each other yet are planets apart. Of course, these are but two examples and it is easy to find many others of people in wealthy areas and less wealthy areas that are fully engaged with city life, who blur these invisible boundaries. But still, I worry that this chasm between our populations is wider than it has ever been, far wider than in the nineteenth century. In the age of overseas second-homes and the digital atomisation into like-minded international (rather than local) interest groups, the idea of a community of rich and poor living in a region seems remote.

If McInroy, Devaney, Emmerich’s ideas about emphasing the role of the individual, of the delivering change through investment in social capital are to mean anything then this gulf must narrow. If Manchester is to become Emmerich’s great European city rather than just a good one, then the lack of a civic sensibility in so many people needs to be addressed. Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as Society.” It was an idiotic statement that ignored all the work and philanthropy, the sense of civic duty that some people in towns and cities such as Manchester have always displayed and must continue to do so.

McInroy talks about investment to start at pre-school. Surely he is right. Every child throughout its education in every part of the country should be shown the assets its own area possesses, should be involved in works within the area and this should be done every year until the child leaves school.

“Perhaps, the biggest legacy of Sir Howard’s stewardship,” McInroy says, “is that from the dark days of the ’80s and the ’90s there has been a restoration of a collective Mancunian confidence. There is a sense that we can make this city even better, we can achieve great things and that no matter what is thrown at us, we Mancunians can just go again. This is fuel for our new leadership. They need to be up for it. I am sure we all are.”

Confidential explored the rise in confidence in this article. And it is welcome. “I am full of hope about what we can achieve,” says Devaney looking forward to 2017.

We have a fresh start next year in our region. If meat can be put on the bones of the aspirations of the people interviewed here, with real policies and strategies, then it might be one hell of a good beginning.

So will the opportunity be taken to knit the city together and prove Thatcher very wrong? Or will any change be imperceptible to all but the tiny percentage of people who navel-gaze local government?

The original article can be read on the Manchester Confidential website here