Manchester’s Housing Strategy fails climate emergency honesty test: so what could be done differently?  

As Manchester City Council’s new Housing Strategy was up for discussion in June’s Economy Scrutiny Committee, we wrote about the weaknesses of its sustainability and zero carbon agenda, and we emailed elected members who sit on the committee to highlight our concerns. 

But during the committee meeting, most councillors praised the Strategy before asking a few soft-ball questions. Why? Almost all the councillors are Labour and they have to show loyalty. It then became apparent that many of the targets set for retrofitting are subject to securing funding, so there is a clear get-out clause for not meeting the strategy’s ‘commitments’. 

We are facing a housing strategy that looks unlikely to achieve much of anything, so what could the Council do differently? We realise that the Council cannot fix everything. But the Council can and should 

  • Be honest with its citizens
  • Be relentless in pushing for the highest ambition when it is in control
  • Use its position as the Council of one of the UK’s largest cities to push for far greater ambition from the UK government

As it stands, the “science based” carbon budget that the Council made a lot of fuss about a few years back is almost certain to be woefully missed. As we’ve pointed out many times, the Council persists in “forgetting” this at every available opportunity. We would want to see a rigorous appraisal of how much the city’s housing stock contributes to its carbon budget, and hence how many houses need to be made “carbon zero” between now and 2038, with interim targets every 2-3 years, to be reported on in an open and timely fashion.

Another means of being honest is to acknowledge that even the best possible ‘zero-carbon’ housing will not spare the city from the impacts of global heating that we know are coming. Bizarrely, the strategy document suggests that Manchester can be spared from these impacts. Honesty in this case would be to look at the likely impacts, and set out measures to ameliorate them, for instance

  • Increased tree planting to reduce the urban heat effect in summer
  • Cooling refuges for vulnerable people in cases of heat waves
  • Flood defences in at-risk areas

These proposals need to be costed, and set out in the context of existing Council budgets so that citizens can understand the scale of what is needed and why it is not happening.

In the cases where the Council is directly able to control the retrofit of houses, this should be completed to the highest possible standard. Weasel words like “lead with zero carbon principles as far as possible” should be absolutely avoided. MCC should be setting the standard for the rest of the city to follow, not saying in effect “we’ll try, but if it looks a bit hard then all bets are off”.

Lastly, the elephant in the room is that the Council obviously does not own all the property in the city, and does not have the budget to properly retrofit what it does own in a timely way. It could be open, use what it learns from its own retrofit activities to estimate the costs involved, and publicise the results so the citizens of Manchester (and beyond) can truly understand the scale of the task, and bring additional pressure to bear for a properly funded national programme in this area. 

At committee, Council officers and the Executive member responsible for housing, Cllr Gavin White (Old Moat), talked about lobbying and even campaigning for more funding for retrofit from central government, but there is no clear evidence of this happening. If this is a campaign, it is not very effective – perhaps ineffectiveness in this area is a legacy of the former Leader Richard Leese disparaging housing and climate campaigners as ‘the sectarian left’.

Under its new Leader, the Council appears to be retreating behind its weak-sauce housing strategy, patting itself on the back for a job well done, leaving the city ignorant of the huge difficulties that are here now, and the even greater ones that will be here before we know it.

The Council’s Retrofit Plan is due for discussion at the Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny Committee later this year. Can that committee do a better job of scrutiny than the display in today’s Economy Scrutiny Committee meeting? And more importantly, can the Council do better? Yes, but concerted external pressure will be needed to help achieve this, which is why we are continuing to build the effectiveness of our Team Scrutiny, to keep tabs and put pressure on the Council in this area. If you want to get involved in Team Scrutiny Fabulous, let us know. 

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