On Monday 17th we released a report about Manchester City Council’s abject failure to collaborate with other local authorities on active travel provision (e.g. pop-up cycle lanes). Here below, Chloe Jeffries of the core group quizzes Marc Hudson, who led on the project. This is part of CEM’s effort to try to do its learning “in public”, and to normalise post-morteming. See also our interview with Chloe Jeffries about her “Core Cities” report, and with Marion Smith about her video mash-up of the appalling attitude of Manchester City Council to the idea of additional democratic scrutiny.Answers have been edited for reasons of bile and libel laws…
Remind us who you are, and what CEM is – especially in the context of a report on cycling.
I’m Marc Hudson. I am a member of the core group of CEM. CEM is a non-partisan group of citizens with the aim of radically improving the city’s response to the climate emergency – both the Council and the broader civil society. We believe that the days of PR spin and kicking the can down the road are over, and that we need both better policies, but also implementation of existing policies. We’re horrified that the city has burned through a quarter of its carbon budget for the rest of the 21st century in the last two years alone, and that the “leaders” in charge of the City and its climate response are not trying to do anything substantive about that, beyond a few zoom meetings and maybe some solar panels on a cathedral.
The cycling issue for us is kind of like a “brown M&Ms” issue – a relatively small thing in the bigger picture of massive decarbonisation, but if you can’t even show leadership and boldness to get the small things right, why should anyone take you (the Council) seriously on the big stuff?
What was the rationale for ‘Cycles of Contention’? Did you come up with the title and work backwards?!
I represent that accusation! Sorry, I mean, resent it. The title is a lift of a famous (well, it’s all relative) social movements studies chapter from a couple of decades ago. I like puns in titles – in spite of (because of?) the fact that it exasperates my wife. The issue of pop-up cycle lanes, and the total failure of the Council to act sensibly, came first though, promise.
How was the report produced? Did you use a tried and tested process, or were there any innovations?
It was a tried and tested approach, though with a couple of minor innovations (and, truth be told, backward steps). I devised some basic specific questions to ask the City Council, and found a bunch of people who live in Manchester (not that they would have to to submit a FOIA) who were relatively or completely new at submitting FOIAs. I think it’s really important to spread that particular skill. I also devised FOIAs for the other local authorities and sent most of them myself (except for Salford).
It was then, when the replies finally came back (though props to Bury – they came back the next day) of collating the replies, chasing up people etc.
Back in 2014 I did this for the first time, in a report called “What Have Ye Done?” which was about the absolute lack of progress against a series of specific commitments by the Manchester City Council ‘Green City Team’.
This time, it was slightly smaller in scope and complexity, but we used gdrive for some collaborative editing.
What went well? What are you proud of?
I’m proud that the report finally got released, that we as CEM are helping other people develop their skills and knowledge – hopefully some will get the taste for finding things out. I’m proud that it looks vaguely adequate (though there is a helluva lot further to go).
I’m proud that we are helping citizens see the gap between what their elected representatives are told in the so-called “scrutiny meetings and what is actually happening, that we are speaking Truth about Power.
What did not go so well?
The report was a bit delayed (though, you know, it’s August…), and didn’t give the comprehensive history of the last few months that I’d originally planned. This is in part because it was emotionally exhausting to stare at the issue. I can on occasion find it disheartening to see the contempt that Manchester City Council has not just for the democratic process of scrutiny, but also for citizens who want a better city, and for the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. Beyond that though, specifically on this issue, is the sheer lack of imagination and vision, the enormous missed opportunity, and that so many people will suffer because of this. People who get Covid because they have to travel on buses or trams because they lack the confidence to cycle on the roads. Children who are not able to cycle because their parents are (understandably) fearful for them. People whose lungs are damaged by the ongoing atrocious air quality in this city.
Now, pop-up cycle lanes were NEVER going to be a “magic bullet” and nobody ever said they were. But they could have been a start. And this report was really hard to write (the earliest draft has a lot of swearing and so forth) because, well, if we can’t even get THIS right, we are well and truly fucked. There, I said it.
So, related to that, because it was finalised in one angry burst, we didn’t tap into the additional talent that is out there around graphic design, proofing etc. That’s the under-management of my feelings of rage, despair, disbelief clouding our ability to be effective political actors/movement-builders: an old story…
What would you differently if you had a time machine?
Tell my younger self to get more help with it, especially around managing the frustrations mentioned above. Better layout, a bigger team. More publicity attending its release (a Twitter campaign, a video etc) But also, it’s August…
Did anything surprise you?
The level of contempt that that some people within the City Council have for democracy, the willingness to provide answers which are deliberately vague, bland, generic and therefore misleading: the people asked about specific bordering local authorities. Often the answer was – as we learnt from the FOIAs to those LAs – “nothing”, but MCC refused to admit this… It shouldn’t surprise me, of course, after more than a decade of this. But I just understand how they can sleep at night. What do they tell their kids when their kids ask them what they did at work that day “Oh, I shat all over some citizens who sincerely wanted answers to why we are doing so little to protect their kids and people like you. You know, same old same old.”
What kind of response did the report get? Any media nibbles?
We sent out a press release, and there are a couple of ongoing discussions – some things may emerge (or may not). Part of the problem is that “Council is useless about cycling” isn’t much of a story – it’s up there with “sun comes up” or “dog bites man” as a non-story.
Will there be a follow up, or is this a one-off? How could other concerned citizens get involved?
Specifically on pop-up cycle lanes, I suspect not. We’ve exposed the total failure. Everybody who wants to know about the total failure knows about it. The more interesting question is whether Labour Party backbenchers will actually DO anything about this failure. More broadly, though, CEM might go on to talk about air quality and social justice issues?
People can (and in my opinion should!) get involved in the various things that CEM does. As well as scrutinising the Council, we’re trying to get 4000 signatures on our petition for a stand-alone 7th (Climate and Environment ) scrutiny committee, we’re engaging with community groups, we’re building an ‘Active Citizenship Toolkit’ and other projects. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
What suggestions would you offer others trying to push for improved access to safe cycling facilities in their city or local area?
It’s not enough to “write to your councillor”. Often times you’ll get no reply at all, and if you do it will be the usual waffle.
What is needed in Manchester is an understanding among citizens that they must not collude with the Council and set up organisations which are essentially there to give the appearance of doing something effective, that think access to decision-makers leads to influence, and that influence is impossible without access. Individual citizens need to get together in effective groups that have strategic vision and determination to pursue that, regardless of the Council first ignoring you, then trying to co-opt you (turn you into their fig-leaf, pet, buy you off). Groups need to communicate, co-ordinate and collaborate with each other much better. It’s not easy. But it has to be done. I still think of all those people who will suffer, in the short-term and in the long-term because of this Council’s unwillingness to do anything bold or radical on air quality and active transport, beyond one or two high profile bits of infrastructure. This of course has been going on for a VERY long time (decades). And on that cheerful note, I’ll stop….