I wrote this piece at the request of the Manchester Meteor as part of a series they’re curating from community groups on the realities of trying to engage with Manchester City Council.
The Meteor series was triggered by blog post from Council leader Sir Richard Leese urging people to work with the council on solutions to the climate crisis.
I’m one of a group of people who last year set up WalkRide Greater Manchester to campaign for better walking, cycling and public transport in the city region.
One of our goals is for our urban centres to be designed and built around people not cars – and specifically we are campaigning for Manchester’s showpiece shopping street, Deansgate, to become traffic free*.
Earlier this year, one of our group came up with a proposal to turn part of Deansgate over to a large ‘open streets’ event on the longest day of the year, for people to be able to try it out as a traffic-free zone, with fun activities such as yoga, picnics and five a side – as well as to learn more about ‘active travel’.
Deansgate is closed to through-traffic about 10-12 times a year – but that’s in order to use the space for events like parades or races – so people don’t really get to experience it as their own, pedestrian place.
We called our idea, the People’s Takeover and asked for meetings with the council, TfGM and the Walking and Cycling Beelines team to progress it.
This coalition of groups were ostensibly enthusiastic, so we adapted the proposal to meet everyone’s requirements – and then asked what we’d need to do to make it happen. We even found an agreed source of funding.
We thought we had done the easy bit.
In fact what then followed were weeks and then months of stop/ start mixed messages and dead ends.
We pushed the date back once – but settled on Clean Air weekend in September as a great time to turn Deansgate over to people, not cars.
However, the confusion continued to the point in early August with just weeks to go we felt we had to pull the plug as we’d run out of time to hold a credible event.
Those of us in WalkRide are still unsure what exactly stymied this plan, which seemed to meet the city’s travel strategy and provide a positive way to engage people in the message, with lots of goodwill and work being offered for free by campaigners.
Crucially, it would have given the city’s leaders the chance to show a tangible action since declaring a climate emergency in July.
Other cities have announced ‘quick win’ car-free measures to reduce carbon and pollution – here was a way Manchester could quickly and easily ‘test the water’ in advance of doing the same.
Was it that the authorities had a better idea?
That they didn’t believe in us?
Or were worried it would be rejected by local residents and businesses?
Maybe there was tension between the council/ Beelines or Tfgm (who are supposed to all work together to deliver the city’s transport strategy, which by the way requires hundreds of thousands fewer car journeys A DAY in Manchester).
We know we had lots to learn and undoubtedly there’ll always be complexities of which we’ll be unaware…fair enough.
But we still don’t know. We’ve never been told what scuppered the idea, other than a vague sense of some bigger picture which remained invisible to us.
In the end, Clean Air Day came and went – but not without with a couple of tweets from the council encouraging residents to apply for road closures…. which in the circumstances were extremely ironic.
For World Car-Free day, Manchester residents are being encouraged to apply to temporarily close local roads, creating traffic-free spaces for play sessions & other activities on their streets. If you're interested in organising a road closure, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Manchester City Council (@ManCityCouncil) September 20, 2019
The story does not end there however.
Some weeks after the People’s Takeover plan was scrapped, on the last Friday in August about 500 or so Extinction Rebellion protestors occupied Deansgate in order to highlight continued inaction on climate emergency.
I was one of them.
As a result of the action, there was a surge in public support towards permanently closing Deansgate, one of the city’s most polluted streets and the one most cited as being most unfriendly to pedestrians.
As a result I started a petition – which gained 2000 signatures in less than two weeks.
The MEN were so overwhelmed with people commenting to this effect on their articles – they ran a story asking ‘was it time for Deansgate to be pedestrianised?’
In this story, Manchester City Council seemed to grasp the opportunity – announcing, it seemed, that yes indeed the street would be pedestrianised, but that the council had to wait until they’d ‘sorted a plan for buses’.
(Those with more transport planning knowledge that me say this is a doddle as the street is regularly closed for events and so those bus plans already exists; so it appears again, we may not be getting the full story).
Almost three months have come and gone since this announcement with no further news.
Having worked in the public sector, I know it can be a slow business, but we are after all in an emergency, and this is an easy win that would send exactly the right signal – that action is being taken.
Meanwhile, cllr Leese wrote his blog saying ‘we’re interested in practical, deliverable solutions’ and ‘we are open to working with anybody who wants to join us in that task’.
WalkRideGM’s follow-up request (not to Leese) for a meeting to discuss further ideas for a staged approach to pedestrianising Deansgate, was declined and we were instead directed to speak to the Deansgate Labour councillors.
They have conducted a survey on what residents felt about the closure (which will undoubtedly be supportive) so perhaps there are moves afoot and the council want pedestrianisation to come about organically (fine, if only we weren’t in an emergency…).
And that is my suggestion for the way forward.
That the council open up – share its problems not just its solutions – so we do know.
If we don’t know what’s going on, how can we help with the not inconsiderable challenges of transitioning to a low-carbon city?
We at WalkRide believe that considerable work has been done on options for pedestrianising Deansgate eg through the Streets for All project.
But Manchester City Council has declined to share this work, saying it is ‘unfinished’.
And that is exactly the point – we do not want to see work when it is finished!
We want to be able to see it, talk about it, influence it beforehand.
Ability to influence (not just comment post decision) is a fundamental tenet of genuine consultation – and the likes of Brian Deegan, Chris Boardman’s Beelines transport consultant, has literally written the book on it, a book he is trying to share with anyone who will listen.
It was good to hear he ran a week-long workshop for employees last week.
So, there are signs that after this summer’s series of own goals – where even ward councillors have spoken out about being in the dark until diggers have turned up on their doorstep – the message has finally landed.
A good litmus test is coming up.
The council is writing a new city centre transport strategy (we’ll leave the fact this is very overdue for another day..)
It’s set out the headline goals already – such as 90% of peak commute journeys being made by walking, cycling or public transport.
To create the strategy officers are embarking on a ‘stakeholder engagement and co-design exercise’ to gather input over the next two months.
WalkRideGM wrote to ask to take part in this engagement piece because we are ready and waiting to offer our ‘ideas for practical, deliverable solutions’ (to quote Leese) – and we have been assured an invitation is on its way.
We urge others with a stake in the city centre transport strategy, to do the same.
So please hear us Manchester City Council; we ask for only two things;-
Genuine dialogue – and outcomes consistent with the council’s own stated strategy.
In return we offer ideas, help, enthusiasm and expertise. For free.
* I use the phrase pedestrianised / traffic-free interchangeably to mean a space shared by walkers, cyclists and mobility scooters (with sensible and clear allocation to make sure those with hearing or sight impairment are not at risk from those on wheels), accepting that some restricted access for delivery or disability vehicles may be required.