It’s ‘back to school’ for the six scrutiny committees of Manchester City Council, following the purdah of April and local elections in May. So Team Scrutiny got out their oversized blazers and shined their shoes to report on the discussions, providing an overview for citizens and councillors alike.
Here we pick out the key points from the week and some of the wider implications for our city in the coming months.
- Work Programme setting takes place behind closed doors – The first committee meetings are always shorter than the norm, clocking in at around 60 minutes as opposed to the usual 120+. This is so that a) any member of the public watching gets back an hour of their life and b) councillors can adjourn to set their work programmes behind closed doors. We always knew that the second half of the meeting would take place out of public sight. But every Team Scrutiny member commented how strange and frustrating this felt (what was being asked after the cameras rolled?). Of course, this is by no means the only important private meeting. Each scrutiny meeting has at least one pre-meeting and much ‘real business’ gets done in the Labour Group. This week even saw the exclusion of the public from the Executive Committee Meeting (in which there was no mention of climate change). Nevertheless, a better feedback loop is needed around the work programmes – particularly when citizens have offered suggestions about what the council should discuss. How will the topics agreed be communicated back this year? Will they become another buried PDF – or the start of a dialogue?
- New councillors are keen to make their mark – Some of those on the ballot paper in May were standing for re-election, but the votes have also swept in a number of new councillors. They will have much to learn, and we will bear with those who are committed (and signed our climate pledges!) but are still getting to grips with their challenging new role. Nevertheless, some of the fresh intake are already setting out their stall. Our hotshot Heath Scrutiny Committee reporter, Hannah Jewell, was impressed by searching questions from Zahid Hussain (Levenshulme) on the statistics surrounding vaccine rollout. Over in the rejigged Environment and Climate Change Committee, Linda Foley (Didbsury East) asked, as Annette Wright (Hulme) has done before, about the status of the Manchester Climate Change Agency and whether now is the time to bring it back in house. There have also been some changes to committee chairs. Julie Reid (Gorton and Abbey Hey) made a strong start as the new chair Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Committee (which now includes a Green Party Member), raising important concerns about digital poverty and the resulting attainment gap.
- Other changes of personnel matter too – Recently elected members are not the only new brooms. This week’s scrutiny committee reminded us that there have been some comings and goings among the Strategic Directors and senior officers (not all as widely reported as the sudden departure of Louise Wyman, Strategic Director of Growth and Development). Michael Marriot, the new Head of Environment, Planning and Infrastructure introduced himself at the Economy Scrutiny Committee. Michael was formerly Assistant Director at the Department and Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development in Canberra, Australia and has a PhD in Urban Studies. CEM (which also houses an Australian, for its sins) will be looking further into his contributions at MCC, as well as the influence of the other Strategic Directors, this municipal year
- Demands for greater transparency (and honesty?) are mounting – Resources and Governance Committee started with questions surrounding the council’s practices over how it sells public land to private investors – an issue 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’. Our R&G reporter Ellen Bassam noted that these issues of transparency really touched a nerve. “There was a genuine feeling that Cllr 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”.
The allied demand for greater honesty, particularly around climate, formed the basis of #1 of CEM’s three climate pledges in the local elections. But as we noted in the wake of the elections, we have a part to play in a more honest local democracy too. “Cultivating honesty relies on us all keeping our eyes and ears attuned to the usual guff that comes out about Manchester’s stance on climate. We need to push back – politely, firmly, persistently, against the habit (or “tactic”) of using the existence of a target as a deflection against questions of actual progress. Councillors can do this, but so can other citizens and residents of Manchester.