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Perspectives Essay: Manchester – A Sustainable Future

Cities have no automatic right to exist. The world is littered with once great cities that have been reduced to provincial towns, to villages, to ruins, or even to having no visible remnants at all.  For much of the twentieth century Manchester was on a trajectory of decline. Its commercial peak was in the nineteenth century when it was a global commercial powerhouse, truly one of those great cities, but by the recession of the early eighties it would not have been impossible to imagine terminal decline.

The discussion around the sustainability of Manchester begins with the reversal of decades of decline; a new economy has been developed and 2011 census figures show Manchester as the UK’s fastest growing city with a 19% population increase compared to ten years previously.  Cities can be seen as buildings and structures, and they can be seen as the people who populate the place to live or work or play. They can also be seen as an organism and, as such, are never in a steady state. They are either growing or declining, and, certainly for the foreseeable future, a healthy, sustainable future for Manchester depends on maintaining a growth trajectory.

This is not growth at any price. It should go without saying that one of the pre-requisites for a sustainable future is that the city should continue to be capable of sustaining human life in a socially acceptable and, indeed, civilised way. This requires the city to face one of the world’s biggest challenges -- perhaps the biggest -- global warming and climate change.  Manchester: A Certain Future, the city’s stakeholder climate change action plan, forecasts that “Manchester’s climate will change to hotter, drier summers, warmer wetter winters and more intense and frequented episodes of extreme weather such as storms and floods.”  The cynics will no doubt point to this year’s ‘wettest on record’ summer, but there is a stronger case for seeing this as further evidence of the growing instability and unpredictability of our weather patterns and gives strength to the statement that this “should only serve to underline the urgent and immediate need for radical action.  We should adapt for the future, even as we make major cuts in our carbon emissions.”

"It should go without saying that one of the pre-requisites for a sustainable future is that the city should continue to be capable of sustaining human life in a socially acceptable and, indeed, civilised way."

Climate change links us, through fossil fuels, to the necessity of changing the way we utilise all of the planet’s finite resources. These are not issues peculiar to Manchester; nor are they problems the city can solve on its own. However, a key element in guaranteeing our own survival as a healthy thriving city is to ensure that we make, at the very least, our fair share contribution to solving these global challenges. Indeed, with this year’s re-run, ‘twenty years on’, of the Rio Conference, it is clear that nation states are no nearer getting their act together with the urgency required, and cities around the world will have a crucial political role in continuing to push the climate change agenda. On a global issue, in a global economy, Manchester needs to be part of that drive.

Go back twenty years further, to 1972, and the United Nation’s very first conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm; it was there that Indira Ghandi, one of only two Heads of Government to attend, said “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters.”  We can be certain that there is no way we are going to stem the increasing emissions of China, Brazil, India and other rapidly growing economies unless we can find alternative ways of meeting their populations growing economic aspirations, tackle the grinding poverty that afflicts much of the developing world, and at the same time find low-carbon ways of reviving the faltering economies of the so-called developed world. And there is no scope here for the “West” to take any moral high-ground, as it is still responsible directly and indirectly for most of the world's emissions.

For all our relative affluence, tackling poverty has been the biggest policy driver in Manchester for the last twenty years. A Labour Party policy paper written at that time identified unemployment and low-skill, low-wage employment as the biggest causes of poverty, and job-creation and getting Manchester people into those jobs as the core of any solution.  Then as now, public services were enduring prolonged and savage cuts and so the creation of private sector growth and jobs was the only route to this addressing of the underlying causes of the scourge of poverty.

The link between the economic and social was reinforced a few years later when the City Council, committed to the development of “sustainable neighbourhoods”, commissioned a piece of work to define what such a neighbourhood would look like.  The Council had expected something that would describe a sustainable neighbourhood in terms of a collection of social attributes, but what came back was a starkly economic view.  Once benefit dependency rises above around a third of the population, sustainability cannot be maintained.  Yet again, getting people into jobs that pay decent wages, becomes the primary social determinant. There is a direct link here between environmental and economic equity as poorer people contribute far less to carbon emissions than the wealthy.

The revival of the city has also required an ideological and cultural battle to be fought as to how cities are perceived.  The flight of the bourgeoisie from the heart of our Victorian cities, the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Town & Country Planning Associations promotion of the garden city concept are all part of a hundred and fifty year plus development of a culture of anti-urbanism.   This can be represented as the myth of the rural idyll, the ideal home being the country cottage with honeysuckle growing around the door; but this has been translated into practice as the blight of semi-detached suburbia – and a deep-rooted culture of rural good, urban bad.

The notion of cities as centres of civilisation and the recognition that dense, urban living is inherently more sustainable than urban sprawl had no place in UK planning and development -- witness all the monotonous, low-rise, open plan, cul-de-sac based developments of the nineteen-eighties and nineties.  The challenge to this has been multi-pronged and includes the active promotion of city-living, support for the growth of the night-time economy, and the investment in high quality cultural and leisure facilities at the heart of the city that continues to this day.

One of the great successes of the past two decades has been to once again make urban living not only acceptable but desirable, the epitome of a civilised life-style. However, this still remains predominantly a life-style choice for young urbanites, students, and older people, including retirees whose children, if any, have long since gone. There is still a long way to go in challenging the dominant “mock” ruralisation that pervades our society, and that includes a need to make urban living accessible and desirable for the full population spectrum, including families.

Although the battle to re-energise city living began in the city centre, the first prolonged attempt to achieve this at scale was in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Hulme. Indeed, it could be argued that the modern history of urban development in this country began in Hulme twenty-three years ago.

Hulme had a history of slum clearance going back before the second world war. Most of central Hulme was redeveloped in the nineteen-sixties and seventies according to the fashions of the time. A combination of poor planning and architecture, notwithstanding the architectural awards gained, and of very poor build quality led to the area being regularly labelled as one of the worst residential areas in Europe. Families fled and, although the area developed a particular form of grungy urban chic, in population terms, it was in terminal decline.

In 1990, a north-west based company, AMEC, commissioned a Toronto based planner, Joe Berridge, to produce a spatial ‘vision’ for a new Hulme, and the launch of City Challenge gave the city the opportunity to put the thinking behind that vision into practice.

Hulme pioneered much of what has now become common-place in regeneration thinking -- the use of long-term strategic planning, the rejection of strict zoning, the importance of design and the introduction of mixed-use development. the re-introduction of the street as something that goes somewhere (i.e. no cul-de-sacs), natural surveillance,  clear distinctions between public and private space, design that reflected the historic pattern of the  area especially the street pattern, an approach that integrated physical change with strong people/community-centred social and economic programmes, regeneration icons (e.g. The Hulme Arch), high-density but at the same time private and safe place for families (e.g. gardens), an aspiration for much higher environmental standards. Previous regeneration programmes had dispersed existing populations.  Hulme gave the opportunity for communities to stay together. Hulme Mark 3 wasn’t, and isn’t, perfect, nor is it yet completed, but it is arguably the best and most successful example of large-scale urban redevelopment anywhere in the county.

The lessons of Hulme are reflected in everything that has happened in Manchester since,  starting with the re-planning and re-building of the city centre post-bomb (not yet completed), through the regeneration of East Manchester (not yet completed), to the development of strategic regeneration frameworks that cover every part of the city.  Hulme started off from looking at the physical form but the regeneration was just as much about people as it was about the buildings and space they occupied.

Although the approach to urban development can be very clearly traced back to Hulme City Challenge, it has not been an insular approach.  Just as the original City Challenge drew ideas from best practice across the Atlantic, we have continued to seek out new and better ways of doing thing.  For example, New East Manchester, the Urban Regeneration Company overseeing renewal in the east of the city, established a relationship with Gothenburg in Sweden. They aimed to learn from far superior environmental standards in the built-environment in Scandinavia. At the same time, they wanted to benefit from the far more successful approaches to social cohesion operating in Manchester. This learning from the best is reflected most recently in the master-plan for West Gorton, work supported by a Scandinavian architectural practice, and seeking to make a step change in our environmental standards.

There is often a misconceived tension between physical re-development and soft, people-centred programmes. Successful growth strategies need both working together in tandem.

There are examples of where investment in Manchester didn’t work because there wasn’t that integration. The Miles Platting SRB (Single Regeneration Budget) programme of the nineteen-nineties very much concentrated on investment in people. When it succeeded -- for example, in getting people trained and into work -- all too often the outcome was that those people left the area. Conversely, the Benchill Estate Action Programme improved the condition of property but did nothing to ameliorate the prevailing social and economic conditions, with the result that the estate, since revived by Willow Park local housing company, soon sank back into decay.  However there is a need for programmes that are very much about people. Indeed Manchester: A Certain Future recognised that a large chunk of achieving our emission reduction targets could only be achieved by changing attitudes and behaviours.  The example that follows though is one that is heavily rooted in that broader social and economic analysis.

"There is often a misconceived tension between physical re-development and soft, people-centred programmes. Successful growth strategies need both working together in tandem."

Around four years ago, Manchester’s first State of the City report identified that although average wages in Manchester were the highest in the English Core Cities, residents’ wages were the lowest. This led to the Manchester Partnership establishing the narrowing of that wages gap as a key priority and that in turn led to the Residents Wages Programme.

A piece of research identified, perhaps unsurprisingly, that low-income, benefit dependency is intensely spatially concentrated. The residents’ wages programme was piloted in two very small areas of the city, areas where virtually nobody worked.  The programme explored the most effective ways of making contact with families – working with them to get family members engaged in education, training and work. Though the programme was, in its own terms, successful, the resource required to run it meant it simply wasn’t replicable on a city-wide scale; but the lessons learnt have been applied and can now be very clearly seen in, for example, the troubled families work being rolled out across the whole of North Manchester – the need for genuine multi-agency workers with single assessment and one lead worker, whole family approaches, and assertiveness are all becoming part of new delivery models.

The paper so far has concentrated on the Manchester local authority area rather than the wider conurbation, although it would have been just as easy to talk about the Greater Manchester Climate Strategy, or the whole place community budget work that is going on in all of the city-regions ten districts.  It is pretty obvious that economies and job markets are not constrained by local authorities. In our relatively recent industrial past, workers would have flooded every morning into Trafford Park, largely by bus, and from every part of the conurbation, as now workers flood into the city centre largely by bus, train and tram.  One of the strengths of the Greater Manchester approach has been the recognition that if we are to promote growth and create jobs, we are more likely to be successful if we operate at the level of the real economy, the functional economic area. That understanding has lead to an increasingly strengthened role for the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) in the fields of economic development, green growth and environmental protection, transport, strategic planning and housing.  In April 2011, the country’s first Combined Authority (CA) came into being, a statutory local authority with each of the ten Greater Manchester districts as members, charged with supporting economic growth across the conurbation .

Even in a relatively short period of time the CA has been remarkably successful – most notably in achieving unprecedented levels of devolution from central government through the first City Deal.  The element of this that has attracted the most attention is the ‘Earn Back’ model, where Greater Manchester gets to share an element of the national tax take generated by growth.  

The Whole Place Community Budget work, referred to previously, builds on the previous government’s Total Place initiative. The work streams involve local government officers working together with a cross-departmental group of civil servants to find new, better, and more cost-effective ways of solving some of urban Britain’s most intractable problems.  There are four work streams -- early years, health and social care, troubled families, and reducing offending/re-offending with a cross-cutting theme of worklessness. Again the approaches being used can be traced back to earlier work, such as that on residents’ wages. The methodologies are consistent, primarily early and assertive intervention through a single, integrated cross-agency framework, with a hierarchy of increasingly intense actions.  The work is currently largely small-scale and, although showing much success, the real test will be scaleability.

Back to the City Deal, perhaps less attention has been given to the range of proposals aimed at low-carbon economic growth than the innovative Earn Back scheme. Prior to the establishment of the CA, AGMA, though remaining a voluntary association, had re-constituted itself as a joint committee of local authorities supported by a number of commissions including the Environment Commission. The commission was chaired by a council leader, but as well as a small number of local authority members, had a wider cross-sectoral membership.  Prior to the City Deal, and as part of agreements with the previous government, AGMA  through the Environment Commission, had developed a number of ambitious programmes, including its climate change strategy and, related to that, a building retrofit programme with an estimated resource requirement of £6billion.  

The retrofit programme, still in the development phase, is an example of something that would hit all the city-region key policy areas.  It would create thousands of jobs, new companies, new techniques and technologies, it would improve the attractiveness of Manchester as a place to live, it would cut emissions, and reduce fuel bills and, as a consequence, fuel poverty. The City Deal includes a joint venture with the Green Investment Bank aimed at building and funding a project pipeline which, as well as retrofit and new-build, might include heat networks, local energy generation, low-emission transport  (electric, hybrid, charging points) and so on.  It is an ambitious programme, and to deliver it the CA has established the Low-Carbon Hub, with seven thematic and cross-cutting sub-groups to drive the programme forward, co-ordinated by a Hub Board to provide enhanced leadership capacity as well as seeking to draw in the scale of investment needed -- no small task in the current climate.

At the core of the Greater Manchester approach is the Greater Manchester Strategy. The strategy was published in 2009, following an extensive independent study of the Manchester economy published as the Manchester Independent Economic Review.  The review gave Greater Manchester an incredibly robust evidence base on which to build its forward plans.  However, in that short number of years, the world has changed so much that the Greater Manchester Strategy is already out-of-date and in the process of being revised. Although the city-region has managed to maintain economic momentum through the credit crunch and subsequent recession, diminished resources make the task of keeping up with, never mind staying ahead of international competition ever harder. There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but the city-region has never ceased becoming ever more ingenious and innovative in finding solutions to the problems we face.

"Although the city-region has managed to maintain economic momentum through the credit crunch and subsequent recession, diminished resources make the task of keeping up with, never mind staying ahead of international competition ever harder."

Though the strategy is being reviewed, the vision remains the same, as do the outcomes that indicate whether we are being successful or not.  Measures include cutting emissions by 40% by 2020, eliminating the productivity gap between Manchester and the South-East, getting economic activity rates and worklessness to better than the national average, massively improving our skill levels, particularly in our young people. Progress indicators are more difficult because of the time lag in most economic and environmental data sets, and a lot of work is being put into developing a useful set of real-time indicators.

Manchester is on a journey. All the evidence suggests it is going in the right direction, but not fast enough, economically or environmentally. In developing the institutions to drive and support change, the city-region has taken an evolutionary approach, building consensus and taking people with us. That evolutionary approach needs to continue, but the pace needs to quicken.  The CA, although a direct successor to previous voluntary arrangements, is a new body and will inevitably take some time to mature, but is undoubtedly the key to the way forward.  Stepping up the pace will only happen if the CA’s ten constituent authorities put the time and effort in to make it happen.  In most respects, the policies and structures we need are in place. Now we need to make them work for us.


This Perspectives Essay was written as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform's (GM LIP) 'Mapping the Urban Knowledge Arena' project. The GMLIP is one of five global platforms of Mistra Urban Futures, a centre committed to more sustainable urban pathways in cities. All views belong to the author/s alone.