Climate emergency overlooked at November Economy Scrutiny Committee

A debut blog by Grace for Team Scrutiny reviews the debates at Economy scrutiny committee and notices that the climate emergency hardly got a mention, despite the connections highlighted in reports. Funny, that! 

Initial Budget Proposals 2022/23

One of the important things noted in this discussion was that the city council is not going to recover what funding was lost due to cuts in 2010 and that this continues to raise concerns among council members with regards to meeting their priority areas, particularly zero carbon, affordable housing, work and skills, and job creation. It was also noted that the sourcing of a further £193,000 remains to be identified for the 2023 budget.  This is also important to bear in mind in relation to the climate, which frequently slips down priority lists when purse strings are tightened. 

A query was raised around the reason behind the reduction of funding to the Accident and Trips area of the budget (money set aside for personal injury claims on city property, accident repairs e.g. to cars due to potholes etc.).  This year, £100,000 was taken from this section of funding, and next year a further £150,000 will be removed.  The reason given for this was that due to COVID there had been – and continues to be – fewer people out and about who would in turn encounter potential scenarios where such funds would need to be spent. What was not covered, however, was the future of these cuts as, presumably (and desirably it seems, due to a later conversation on the fact that footfall around all of Manchester has not yet increased to pre-COVID levels) the likelihood of people encountering such situations will rise back to previous levels. It was not discussed as to whether the Accident and Trips funding will then need to re-receive the impending £250,000 cuts if the number of related incidents rises back to pre-COVID levels.

Contribution of HE Institutes’ to City Economy

Two representatives from the University of Manchester (Julian Skyrme, Director of Social Responsibility) and Manchester Metropolitan University (Michael Stevenson, Director of Public Affairs) attended the committee to present their findings from research attempting to fully quantify the benefits of the Universities to the city’s economy.  The overall point made was that the presence of universities in the city is positive for the economy, and not limited to the obvious areas where universities are present (Oxford Road, for example).

Cllr Raikes (Baguley) queried how research conducted by the universities impacts the city, and asked if the universities are working to tap into government research and development funds which typically end up being spent more in the South of England.  The response to this was that the universities are working with the city’s Combined Authority and City Council on joint proposals to the government on funds, although specifics weren’t given beyond the statement that the Universities are focusing on targeting the “right areas” of research and development (the example given being the low carbon agenda).

A particularly interesting discussion was had around universities working to align their priorities with policymakers across various levels. Writing this, I don’t have a particular for or against argument to this point, but I do think it’s worth reflecting on about if universities should or shouldn’t attempt to align themselves with policymakers.  My feelings on the matter very much depend on which side of the political spectrum the policymakers sit on. 

Finally, the negatives of a student presence in Manchester were mentioned – mainly the issues of noise, waste, and housing.  Cllr Leese raised an interesting point that whilst there is low-cost housing available for undergraduate students, the desires of international and postgraduate students often mean they “bleed into general purpose housing and reduce the amount of general housing that is available”.  Alongside this, it was mentioned that developers often see student housing as “easy” and therefore tend to encroach onto general housing for this reason, meaning that areas which the Strategic Development Framework advised for commercial or residential purposes become student housing locations.

Graduate Retention and Student Numbers in the City

Following on from the previous topic, this section covered the likelihood of Manchester HE students staying within the city, as well as postgraduates moving into the city following education outside of the area.  Manchester’s high level of student retention was noted and the council’s investment in growth in jobs was praised for its role in this via the creation of more graduate level jobs and employment.  Cllr Raikes made the important comment that the fear of the “brain drain” when students leave the city is perhaps overstated due to the fact that it is relatively common for people to return home after completing their higher education.

Finally, the topic of teacher assessed grades (introduced because of COVID19) was discussed including the important fact that more advantaged and/or independent schools have benefited more from this.  There was no particular conclusion reached on this topic, but it remains an important one for discussion.

Economy COVID19 Situation Recovery report

Footfall in all central areas of the city remains lower than pre-pandemic, although local centres are recovering quicker than the city centre due to an increased number of people working from home.  In particular, St Anne’s Square and King Street are recovering slower than Market Street, and there is an increase in empty retail units in those areas. The potential of creating partnerships with these areas to see how this can be addressed was raised.

Finally, there was a request for an update regarding Community Renewal Funds, and it was agreed that a briefing would be provided to the committee on this.  It was noted that civil servants were not keen to repeat the Community Renewal Fund experience with the Shared Prosperity Fund, but there was little explanation given as to why this is.  Presumably this is something which will be covered in the briefing, which had yet to be uploaded for the public online. 

A Climate Perspective

Besides a few unexpanded mentions, the topic of the climate was missed in this meeting, despite regular reference to it in the reports.  The Situation Report summary made regular mention of updated challenges in relation to the environment – transport, flight levels increasing, recent national Government plans (the new Net Zero Plan, Transport and Decarbonisation Plan, Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, Nature for Climate Fund) and the whole topic of Transport and Infrastructure which took up a considerable amount of space on the report.  The lack of attention to the climate emergency in the meeting itself suggests that Team Scrutiny Fabulous will have more work to do in pressuring Cllrs on the Economy Scrutiny Committee to take this into account seriously. Passing lip service to ‘zero carbon’ and saying job done is not enough.

Manchester City Council has six scrutiny committees that meet most months, where Councillors are supposed to keep tabs on the bosses – but it rarely works out like that. The climate emergency is often ignored, and Team Scrutiny Fabulous aims to address this by keeping tabs, informing the public, and building skills and capacity for citizen scrutiny. Contact us if you’d like to get involved. 

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