Working hard or hardly working?  Economy Scrutiny Committee: Updates on Sub Strategies of the City Centre Transport Strategy

In Manchester, polluted air is damaging our children’s lungs, dangerous driving is claiming too many lives, and pedestrians and cyclists are forced to use disconnected and unsafe infrastructure. We sit in on the Economy Scrutiny Committee to find out what the council is doing about it. 

With transport responsible for 32% of carbon emissions in Manchester, rapidly reducing our dependence on private vehicles is essential. Increasingly, cities across Europe are adopting car-free policies to meet their climate commitments, while at the same time improving the health of their citizens and benefiting businesses who operate in the city centre.

So where does Manchester stand on all of this? As yet, the council hasn’t made any public commitments to going completely car-free, but has made some incremental changes such as banning cars from (a section of) Deansgate during lockdown. Road building still seems to be high on the agenda however, with the completion of our very own ‘European boulevard’, aka the now five-lane, cycle-path free Great Ancoats Street. 

 

 

The Clean Air Zone, which was due to come into force in May 2022, has been paused after significant backlash from businesses and charities who claim they will be forced to close due to the cost of the scheme. Andy Burnham has gone back to Government to request more financial support for those seeking to switch their old polluting vans to low emissions vehicles. 

Crucially however, the scheme doesn’t apply to private cars, so many people will still be free to drive into and across the city centre as they please. How, then, does MCC plan to reduce trips by cars?

Furthermore, pedestrians and cyclists are still being killed across roads in Greater Manchester – tragically, nine people were killed in the space of just two weeks over the Christmas period. It’s clear that bold and immediate action is required to make our city centre a safe place for all. 

The report

Firstly, a quick look at the ‘report’ that has been submitted to this scrutiny committee. It claims to provide “an update on the progress of sub strategies and other activities related to the City Centre Transport Strategy (CCTS)”. However, the items which are then described are not identifiable sub-strategies, but rather a long list of everything related to travel and transport around Manchester. 

With all of this in mind, I hold onto hope that we receive some clarity on the sub-strategies at the committee, such as:

  • What are they? 
  • How do they link with one another and how do they feed into the main strategy? 
  • How do they relate to activities such as the Clean Air Zone and bus franchising? 
  • How are they being monitored against their targets?

For none of this and more, stay tuned.

A work meeting that isn’t a party, but also isn’t a work meeting

Before we begin, our chair (Cllr Hannah Priest, Charlestown) gives us all a good laugh: “Can I just check that everyone does know, this is a work meeting or not a party? It’s very easy to get the two confused. So sorry if you have brought a bottle I know they look very similar, but they see that this is actually a work meeting. So let’s crack on.”

Ho ho. This is actually hilarious, but tragically not in the way she thinks it is, because if what follows passes for ‘work’ then I think I’m in the wrong job. 

For the uninitiated, it might be helpful for me to explain here that scrutiny committee meetings aren’t like your usual work meetings. 

For example, what is the purpose of meeting minutes? Everywhere I’ve worked, minutes are used to capture important details like the things people promised they would do, so you can make sure they’ve done them when the next meeting rolls around. At MCC, they seem to exist only as proof that the meeting took place at all. 

“We’ll move on to item four, which is the minutes of the previous meeting. Members should have seen those. Any comments or questions on those minutes? Are we happy to approve those as a record of the meeting held on the ninth of December? Excellent. So we move on..”

And move on we do, to the quickfire questions round. 

Just kidding! Instead of asking a question, receiving an answer and then moving onto the next question, councillors now take turns to ask all their questions at once, forming one big super-question, which is scribbled down by the people who will be answering. 

This gives members the opportunity to answer whatever question they think was asked, because so many other questions have been asked since we started, so who can remember what it was really? As long as the answer contains some of the same or similar words as the question, that’s good enough. 

I am, however, relieved to find that it’s not just me who is puzzled by the report. Cllr Shilton-Godwin (Chorlton Park) comments, “this is supposed to be about sub-sub strategies from the city centre transport plan and it isn’t, it’s about travel across the city. So I was disappointed with the report because I wanted to know about the city centre.” You and me both, hun. 

The £2.4 million elephant in the room (or rather, on the street)

Cllr Marcus Johns (Deansgate, so his ward is the city centre) poses an interesting question regarding street clutter:

“I know there’s a discussion in the report around street clutter… with London phone boxes, those applications that kind of regularly come in to put more things in the pavement, and how shops and so on use the pavement to advertise their business and the extent to which that slightly contradicts putting pedestrians first on the hierarchy.”

Now if you’ve been in the city centre at all over the past few months, chances are you’ll have spotted one of these:

Which then evolved into their final, pavement-hogging, energy-consuming form: digital display screens. 

If I understand correctly from Cllr Johns’ request to tackle street clutter, businesses who have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic could be prevented from using the pavement to display their offers – but the council can rake in £2.4 million every year from these 86 screens, which have recently promoted far-right media outlets and cryptocurrency, and each use the same amount of energy as three households? 

I wonder if the council will be reviewing the screens as part of an audit promised by Michael Mariott (head of Environment, Planning & Infrastructure), which will “look specifically at the city centre pedestrian walking network”, and “key routes and picking up many of the issues you mentioned there about street clutter, about perceptions and and safety matters.” 

Cllr Rawlins (Baguley), with absolutely no hint of irony, adds, “It’s really understandable, particularly in the difficult times we’ve been in that it feels like a quick and easy win to put a big blackboard outside advertising, whatever the daily special might be. And sometimes it’s just the thought process hasn’t gone far enough to think about the impact that might have on on pedestrians and people moving around the city.”

Just a reminder that MCC has defended its lucrative new ad screens by saying that it needs them because of austerity. Yeah. 

Cycle paths to nowhere

Cllrs Johns and Shilton-Godwin raise some pertinent questions regarding cycling in the city centre, both in terms of the poor connectivity of routes and the lack of storage and parking. 

It’s interesting to learn that part of the reason why cycling routes into and across the city are so disjointed is due to the way in which they were funded through the Mayor’s Cycling and Walking Challenge Fund, as Steve Robinson, Director of Highways explains: 

“There was no Bee network in place, that was still being consulted upon. And what the mayor wanted to do was get on with spending some money on some schemes as quickly as possible. So there was a race between all the districts to get schemes through the business case, GMCA approval sausage machine… So I totally accept that that has led to a significant amount of severance. But once we have the strategy in place, and some other funding in place, we will close the gaps as quickly as we possibly can do.”

When exactly this strategy and funding will actually be in place is unclear, nor are there any suggestions of things that we could be doing in the meantime. 

There is a lack of vision on the bigger picture from some councillors – suggestions that we can turn unused spaces in council car parks into cycle parking, and speak to GMP about anti-social driving hotspots are all well and good, but they aren’t a strategy. As Cllr Johns points out,

“Whilst it is those locations where there are sort of hotspots, those people are driving there, they’re driving all through the city centre and all through the city, often in that way. And it’s just the extent to which the interventions we’re making in improving junctions in filtering neighbourhoods… are also seeking to tackle anti-social driving at design stage.”

What’s next for the CCTS?

Since MCC haven’t told us what the sub-strategies for transport in the city centre actually are, it’s tricky to make recommendations as to what they could be doing. However, I’d invite them to take a look at our report, “Get a waggle on”, to find out what action other cities are taking to reduce their transport emissions. 

Although I’m disheartened by another shambolic scrutiny committee, I remain hopeful and very much look forward to reading the first annual report on the progress of the CCTS, which we are assured will include “information on delivery progress of initiatives and performance against key indicators.” My favourite! 

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