Manchester City Council has six scrutiny committees. CEM’s “Team SF” covers all six… In the first report in the new cycle, Ellen reports on the Resources and Governance Scrutiny Committee (R&G) [agenda and link to video here]. It was dedicated almost entirely to the Annual Property report. It brought moments of excellent scrutiny, raising questions over transparency, affordability and costing as well as even some zero carbon talk.
The meeting started with questions surrounding the councils’ practices over how it sells public land to private investors. It was an issue recently picked up and reported by Manchester Evening News (MEN) following a study by academics at Universities of Manchester and Sheffield in collaboration with Greater Manchester Housing Action that raised concerns over ‘£1 land deals’. Juicy stuff if you can make sense of it. Officers in question were quick to provide a rebuttal to questioning, claiming that what was reported didn’t give the whole picture. The whole picture, however, remains a little unclear after hearing these responses. What was rightfully picked up on by cllrs in R&G is that corporate property is a very complex area of work, and the council therefore should commit to making a greater effort to be more transparent in its dealings, more forthcoming in what is does and better at communicating this to the general public. There was a genuine feeling that cllrs really were standing up (whilst remaining seated) and asking questions on behalf of the public, with their own confusion in the issue, demonstrating just how complex it is to understand. Deputy Leader Cllr Bev Craig (Burnage) did commit to greater transparency, lets just hope that comes through.
Continuing through the report, Cllr Ben Clay (Labour, Burnage) raised a good question over affordable housing, asking for officers to define what affordable really meant, as it’s a broad term, stating that surely ‘80% of market rate in the town centre’ does not actually constitute affordable. Also of interest were points raised about the future of the ever-expanding office space developments and how well they will perform in a post-pandemic world. Those in question were adamant that office spaces will perform well, even if they might need to be ‘reconfigured’ somewhat. The same was said to retail, with increased footfall highlighted since the reopening of shops. Surely at some point you’d think those that care about reaching carbon neutrality might realise this is incompatible with current levels of consumption, and whilst it’s great from a short-term economic standpoint, what are the long-term environmental (and therefore economic effects) of having to rely on a retail pattern that encourages growing consumption?
The last point of major interest in the meeting was the discussion of net neutrality with regard to property. Chair of the committee, Cllr Sarah Russell (Labour, Northenden) highlighted the sheer volume of projects and vision across Manchester is clearly huge, but asked that it would’ve been useful to get a greater breakdown of environmental savings. Also highlighted by Russell was the 11 buildings that have a focus on decarbonising heat – she noted they were told in March they had the funding and have until September to complete the work. She was told a delivery plan was in place, despite it being difficult with the procurement process. A report on that was requested, which will actually be very interesting to see how quickly the council can complete ‘environmental work’ when timescales are tight, given that timescales are only going to be something we will see shortened as the environmental crisis continues. Continued reporting was also requested by Cllr Clay who made the important comment that the first 30-40% of carbon reduction is the easiest, but after that it gets much more difficult. A problem that is likely to come up a lot when the council is aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2038. Cllr Ahmed Ali (Labour, Rusholme) also picked up on carbon neutrality and the importance of promoting and developing this further. His best question, which was somewhat ignored by officers, was whether carbon neutrality was being worked towards in synergy with levelling up as well as whether the council was leading this and if not why – key if climate justice is to also be achieved.
Overall there was some solid questioning from councillors and some solid half-answering from officers, but it was good to see some good, genuine scrutiny back in action.