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Manchester needs change as much as it did in the '30s

Councillor SAM WHEELER writes of the challenges, past and present, facing his home city

IN DECEMBER, a new Manchester city centre councillor, John “Jack” Owen, stood up in full council in Manchester to give his maiden speech. In it he argued for rent controls on all but the highest rated properties in the city, railed against the injustice of means-testing support, and condemned the Liberal spokesman now affecting concern about the housing situation saying sharply, “the Labour Party was fighting the landlords when Mr Edwards was performing those perambulations which first brought him into prominence.”

It could have been last week, but as it happens this debate took place in December 1937. The rateable value Jack set as the limit was £35 a year, or £2,267 in today’s money, almost bang on Manchester’s current council tax band F. The argument about housing in Manchester is as old as the city and never truly disappears, but it does have particular flare-ups. One of those is happening now, and as before the outcome will determine the nature of the second city of England for decades to come.

The housing shortage is a national issue, but the scale of the crisis in Manchester is breathtaking. From its population nadir at the end of the century, the city has put on some 8,000 people a year. It has now reversed the trend of decline seen in industrial cities since the late sixties, and shows no signs of stopping, as the third of the city aged between 20 and 34 have kids of their own. By 2030 some estimates have the population pushing 700,000, an urban migration not seen since Engels walked the streets. The pressure on services is obvious, but deeper questions are bubbling up around what it means for Manchester’s identity, what kind of city we are building, and with whose money.

There have already been well-meaning and honourable campaigns around the financial links of Manchester Life Development Company to Abu Dhabi, and questions about whether this regime is a fit business partner for a city with Manchester’s pedigree. There are growing murmurs of discontent over the Far East Consortium currently buying up swathes of the Irk Valley. The big housing associations of the south-east, pockets bursting with rentier capital, eye the brownfield sites of Manchester’s industrial past, while local people question their understanding of and commitment to our city.

The question of direction is even more pertinent, coming as it does at a moment when the leadership of the largest Labour Group in Britain looks set to change. Labour control 94 of the 96 seats on the council. Sir Richard Leese is the joint longest serving leader in British local government, having been in post for 22 years, and has been increasingly hinting he may follow former chief executive Howard Bernstein, “Mr Manchester”, to other projects. Mancunian politics is marked by generational revolutions; the first Labour administration in 1945, the loss of control to the Tories in 1968, the regaining of the council in 1971 and then the New Left putsch of 1984.

It is this last event, led by Graham Stringer (now MP for Blackley & Broughton), after years of open warfare within Manchester Labour Party, which set the tone for the next 34 years. The triumph of the university-educated, public-sector professional “New Left” over the previous Catholic-workerist engineering shop stewards, crystalised perhaps the shift in the underlying economics of Manchester. Yet what is remarkable is how little of the business of the city changed.

Though tremendous work was certainly done on the left’s frontiers of that era; women’s liberation, gay rights, racial equality, international solidarity and the peace movement, the role of Manchester City Council as a facilitator of the dominant capital interests remained almost entirely untroubled. Looking at the Manchester Ship Canal, that embodiment of Victorian municipalism, the revolutionaries of 1984 began from a position that “the council must remain the custodian” of a vital asset. By the end of 1987, they had been convinced to relinquish majority control of the board as a modernising step. Stripped of this protection, the land assets were seized by Peel Holdings and others, and control over swathes of development across Greater Manchester was moved from democratic control to that of private capital.

We see the pattern repeatedly, from exclusive residential developments underwritten by public borrowing, to turning over council services and staff to the mercies of Biffa and Mears, to the blasphemy of celebrating an Amazon office setting up in the oldest surviving warehouse of the Co-operative Society. Indeed even the social liberalism pioneered in Manchester was in part an adaptation to a new consumerist economic model, and through tourism, student numbers and “city centre living” it has delivered a rather large return for certain economic actors.

Yet despite every Faustian pact made Manchester, still, has the second worst life expectancy in England after Blackpool, the second worst rate of child poverty in England after Tower Hamlets, wages that have fallen since 2002 and 15,000 families on its housing waiting list. And more cuts to come. Some might call those revolutionary conditions.

A change is past due in the politics of the first city of the industrialised world. But easy as it would be to get hung up on the personalities that have dominated the city for my entire lifetime, it’s not about individual people and their foibles. The history of Manchester shows that, just as the city creates revolutionaries, it is equally adept at breaking them. There will be a very small window of opportunity for the next leader and those they bring with them to try and forge a new compact with the people, and a new direction for the city, before the structures swallow them.

Whomever she or he is, they had better have a plan ready, and they need to start publicly articulating it. Half of Manchester has already endured the agony of when the manager of 20-odd years picks their own successor. The city can’t endure a David Moyes in the town hall.

As for Jack Owen, after numerous clashes with the local leadership over their lack of radicalism, he was eventually expelled from Manchester Labour Group on the pretext of his ongoing association with the Daily Worker, the predecessor to this paper. A few months after his expulsion he joined the Communist Party, and remains the only (out) Communist to have served on Manchester City Council. Let us hope, for your author’s sake, that particular bit of history doesn’t end up repeating.

Sam Wheeler represents Piccadilly Ward on Manchester City Council.

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