Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, talks to Northern Soul
As I picked my way through the rubble and surveyed the ruins of the city centre, I wondered how on earth Manchester would rebuild itself, how it would recover from the largest bomb ever detonated in peacetime Britain. A massive 3,000 lbs of explosives had destroyed a third of Manchester’s retail space, rendered the heart of the city a no-go area, and left livelihoods in tatters.
Nearly two decades later and it’s nigh on impossible to detect the work of the IRA back on that sunny Saturday in 1996. Today the streets are thronged with shoppers enjoying the largest Christmas Markets outside Germany; families and friends flitting between 300 stalls spanning nine sites (a record-breaking 200,000 people visited on the first weekend alone).
Some say that the bomb was a crucial turning point for Manchester, the catalyst that, in time, revived the city’s fortunes and placed it on the world stage, both culturally and economically. A total of £1.2 billion was spent putting the city centre back together again and, over the past few years, there has been significant investment across a diverse range of sectors. In 2014, Manchester and neighbouring Salford have the second biggest cluster of digital businesses in Europe.
Sir Richard Leese was part of the team which reimagined Manchester after the bomb ripped through it. Thirty years a Labour councillor, 18 of them as council leader, Sir Richard is at the forefront of the city’s renaissance, not least because he’s a key player in negotiations with the Government over devolution for the Greater Manchester region.
“Government in this country needs fixing because it’s broken,” Sir Richard told Northern Soul. “It has continually delivered ‘one size fits all’ and that isn’t delivering the outcomes we need. It’s not giving people the social care they need, it’s not helping people who are on incapacity benefit, and it’s not giving people in their early years the best start in life. We need to start organising services in a different way and start organising them round people and their families in the places where they live. We need to start organising economic development around the real economy.”
He adds: “Whether it’s public services or economic development, the experience of other parts of the world with devolved models shows that it works. And all of the proposals for devolution here have been generated by Manchester. It’s not a top-down imposed route.”
Under the so-called ‘Devo Manc’ plan announced earlier this month by Chancellor George Osborne, Greater Manchester will receive new powers over transport, housing, planning and policing in a deal worth more than £1 billion. Of this raft of new responsibilities, transport is probably the biggest with control over investment given to Greater Manchester as well as the tantalising prospect of Oyster-style tickets and franchised bus services.
Meanwhile, a new £300 million housebuilding budget will be handed over to the region with the aim of building up to 15,000 more homes over ten years. Welfare-to-work programmes, with a £100 million budget, will be introduced and there will be local control over existing health and social care budgets. The new deal does not include education.
But there’s a catch. In exchange for the Government’s act of largesse, Greater Manchester must elect a mayor. And that mayor will have those key powers: transport, housing, planning and policing. In fact, the post of police and crime commissioner will be scrapped and incorporated into the role of mayor. A mayoral election is likely to take place in 2017.
A directly-elected mayor for Manchester – sound familiar? That’s because voters in the region were given the option in May 2012, and voted no. Mancunians could be forgiven for thinking that the Chancellor and local government are forcing an unwanted system on the area.
“Most Mancunians didn’t vote at all in that referendum [two years ago],” says Sir Richard. “And of those who did, they were voting for a proposition that brought nothing with it. There were no extra resources and no extra powers, and no extra control over our region.”
On that, Sir Richard is right. But doesn’t a mayor with greater scope – power over the entirety of Greater Manchester, not just the city itself – mean that a fresh referendum is more important than ever?
“If it was a London-style mayor, I would be demanding a referendum. But the [Greater Manchester] mayor will be the eleventh member of the Combined Authority structure which already exists and has been in place for two and a half years. We are building organically on a Manchester agenda.”
In a nutshell, the Combined Authority is a way for the ten Greater Manchester councils to work together. They are Stockport, Tameside, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury, Bolton, Wigan, Trafford, Salford and Manchester. Greater Manchester has been at the vanguard of local government co-operation since 1986 following the creation of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, a forerunner of the Combined Authority but with limited legal powers. At the moment they exist side-by-side. Other areas have attempted to follow suit with varying degrees of success.
Under the Devo Manc plan, the Combined Authority would have a veto, and powers to amend the mayor’s plans. Basically, the cabinet would be able to reject mayoral policies if two-thirds of members agree on such a move. So, no Boris-style ability to act alone. Needless to say, Sir Richard won’t be drawn on throwing his hat in the ring, only saying that “I think about it and I will think about it”. He might be heartened to learn that, as soon as the devo deal was announced, Ladbrokes released a list of possible contenders. Sir Richard topped the list at 3/1 while David Moyes, the former Manchester United manager, languished at a less promising 200/1.
Of course, all this talk of devolution could be just that, talk, if there’s a change in Central Government next May. Sir Richard says he would be “very, very surprised” if Labour abolished the devolution timetable. “Last week I talked to members of the Shadow Cabinet about devolution and how it was going and I think if anything they are more supportive than members of the coalition.”
Meanwhile, in the run-up to the General Election, there has been much discussion in Westminster about a “Northern Powerhouse” and a “Northern Supercity“. The more cynical among us might view this as a glaringly obvious Conservative bribe for Northern votes, but the Northern Powerhouse sobriquet sits well with Sir Richard.
“I do quite like it. But George Osborne himself will admit that he’s not the first person to use it, it’s not a concept he invented. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The argument is simple. The Manchester metropolitan area has between 2.5 million and 3 million people. Leeds is a bit smaller, Liverpool is quite a lot smaller. In the global economy, we are not big cities. With improved transport links, it would allow Northern cities to act as a single labour market and then you can get the benefits of globalisation. As a virtual city, we could compete with large cities around the world.”
Improved transport links are on the cards, not least the much-publicised HS2, a high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham and the North of England due in 2033. The scheme has its detractors but Sir Richard isn’t one of them. “It’s essential. It’s more than a good thing. There is a very simple equation that transport equals trade, and trade equals jobs.”
But the leader of Manchester City Council is concerned about boosting connectivity across the North of England. “It’s equally important to improve East/West links. And I don’t just mean improve links like Liverpool to Manchester, but also links like Liverpool to Sheffield and beyond to Newcastle.”
Enter HS3, a multi-million high-speed rail plan linking Manchester with Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. Prime Minister David Cameron gave these proposals the green light in October, claiming that journey times between Manchester and Leeds could be halved. Sir Richard is doubtful.
“Manchester and Leeds, and Manchester and Sheffield, are too close together to have a high-speed rail link. The point of a new line has to be to create direct journeys without interruptions.”
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Well, as far as Manchester’s investment in culture is concerned, anyway. In Spring 2015, a multi-million pound cultural centre will open its doors in the city centre. HOME, the new, er, home of two of Manchester’s best-loved cultural organisations – Cornerhouse and the Library Theatre – will, it is hoped, unlock the creative potential of the city. This ambitious £25 million project, made largely possible by the council’s £19 million contribution, is testimony to the city’s commitment to culture, even in times of austerity.
Sir Richard says: “Culture is very, very important. We are, notwithstanding appalling budget cuts, continuing to support culture. We continue to support the Manchester International Festival and other partners like The Whitworth Art Gallery, the Museum of Science and Industry, the National Football Museum. And there are a number of reasons why we do it. Some are economic. Creative industries are big job creators, and all the way through the recession they continued to be job creators. Then there are the related industries like tourism and cultural organisations are a big part of that.”
He adds: “There is a quality of life issue here for businesses and people looking for somewhere to settle down. For businesses looking to relocate, the culture offering is one of the top five things they look at. Culture is part of how you attract other businesses to a location and how you attract people. And it is my intention to continue with this [investment in culture].”
But it’s not all good news at the Town Hall. It emerged last month that Manchester City Council is to cut about 600 full-time posts as part of plans to save £59 million, potentially rising to £90 million in 2016/17. This is in addition to more than 3,000 job losses over the past four years. Areas in the firing line during this new round of swingeing cuts include funding to youth schemes, mental health support, homeless provision and local community groups – as well as axing school crossing patrols and free swimming for children and the elderly. The council has already made £250 million of savings between 2011 and 2015 following deep reductions in Central Government funding.
The Labour-run council claims that its total budget for all services has been slashed by almost 40 per cent since 2010.
“A lot of independent evidence demonstrates that Manchester has been disproportionally affected [by Central Government cuts to funding],” says Sir Richard. “We are badly treated.
“Figures from organisations like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the University of Newcastle show that we have some of the most deprived areas in the country but we are taking the brunt of the cuts. We can do our best to mitigate the impact of these cuts and we can do our best to keep the city growing. And after the General Election I’m very much hoping that there will be a Labour Government. But we don’t think that we will suddenly get all our money back.”
In the meantime, a local issue is exercising the minds of both public and press alike.
Depending on your point of view, Library Walk is an integral part of Manchester’s architectural heritage or a badly-lit curved walkway to be avoided at all costs. Following the multi-million pound redevelopment of the historic Central Library and work on the Town Hall extension, a glass lobby (which some reports peg at £3.5 million) has been erected between the two buildings. Campaigners claim that the glass lobby was not included in the original St Peter’s Square consultation plans and insist that the council is breaking the law by restricting public right of way.
The glass atrium has planning permission, and will be open for much of the day. But hundreds of people have signed a petition objecting to council plans to close it between 10pm and 6am. A pressure group, Friends of Library Walk, say they want to “save this special place from the council’s proposals to gate and glaze it”. A public enquiry is ongoing.
“Some people think that the public enquiry was about the building but that stays whatever the outcome,” says Sir Richard. “The enquiry is simply about whether Library Walk is open 24/7 or open between 10pm and 6am. There was and is pessimism about the building. But [objection] to the closure order, that’s what I can’t understand. It’s a particularly dank and horrid place. Most Mancunians would avoid it like the plague. In terms of visual lines, walking through it, I wouldn’t have gone through out of choice.”
So, there you have it. If you’re wondering what Sir Richard had to say about the perceived NCP monopoly on city centre parking, or the decision to extend paid on-street parking to 8pm on weekdays and weekends, then you may be underwhelmed with his suggestion to try cheaper car parks on the fringes of the city centre. As for NCP and Sir Richard’s assertion that the company has, following pressure from the council, introduced more competitive rates, I treat that with a large degree of scepticism. I parked at a city centre NCP car park earlier this week. I was only there for four hours. My bill? £12.
Having said that, there’s a sliver of a silver lining when it comes to parking. According to Sir Richard, the spectre of a congestion charge is “dead for an indefinite future”. Small victories and all that.
By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
Photos of Sir Richard Leese by Chris Payne
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