On a typically grey Wednesday in the City Centre, an assembly of council officials, consultants, community activists and members of the public queue up inside Central Library. What do this mish-mash of Mancunians have in common? They’re all in line to hear one of the Godfathers of Manchester’s renaissance – Richard Leese present the Manchester Strategy. This document sets out Manchester’s civic plan for the next decade. Many of the attendees are spectators, but many more have had a say.
Taking to the stage, Richard Leese was keen to discuss the input that Manchester residents and community groups have had in putting together this document.
“It is important to have a shared view to take Manchester forward.” Leese stated in his typically calm and seemingly approachable manner. “It is vital to bring a broad range of views into the process”. As he discusses this, images of the consultation responses appear on a projector, including one which advocates replacing “all public transport with water slides”. You may assume that this is either authored by a child, or a long-suffering user of Northern Rail.
Leese noted the success of Manchester in the past twenty years, but he doesn’t skirt round the difficult issues. Leese mentions the importance of constantly assessing what hasn’t worked and what needs to be achieved, listing skills, healthcare and housing. He describes how the annual State of The City report has been “vital” to understanding where Manchester is, to then plan for where it is going.
During his speech, Leese noted lessons learned from neighbouring Greater Manchester borough, Wigan, whose “asset based approach” has enabled more individuals to contribute to civic processes.
“We want to steal as many ideas from Wigan as we can…” [cue laughter from the crowd] “No, in honesty they are clearly happy to give us information on what’s worked for them”.
Wigan’s approach – The Wigan Deal – involved communities and professionals in making decisions around the council’s day-to-day operations. Leese described the win-win from more involvement, better services and lower cost. Manchester, he stated, will follow this approach to provide public services in the future. This speech is upbeat and ambitious – despite deviating from Whitehall to Wigan, this speech is typically Mancunian.
This subject is topical, Manchester and its neighbouring authorities within Greater Manchester will see this as more important as devolution powers transfer in May. Greater Manchester is tasked with bringing down government spending as part of the settlement, to gradually reduce it’s status as a net-beneficiary of tax revenues. How this ‘Big Society’ inspired approach develops in the future will no doubt be interesting.
On Manchester’s focus on attracting business and talent, he seemed to respond to many red-Labour critics on culture and the City Council’s investment in culture during a time that other services are being reduced. Leese rather bluntly then stated “Who wants to live in a city without Culture?” continuting to say “Parks, libraries, leisure facilities… they all provide quality of life”. He has given this sermon before, including in this Guardian article in 2015 and during the launch of HOME.
On the emerging plan, Leese didn’t just talk strategy, but talked delivery. Manchester has been recognised for its ‘can do’ approach and this speech displays that clearly. “Strategy is wonderful as long as we do something about it”.
Questions were then raised around climate change, green strategy and litter. On litter, Leese stated “we have to get the basics right… as an elected official if that’s [action] what the people want, that’s my priority”. Leese then signs out with a generic final point on making Manchester a “better place” in the future.