Did Manchester City Council rig the vote on a controversial car park development? Was the Leese administration “rehearsed in private and performed in public”? Twelve guerrillas snapshots from the municipal front line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Monday 28 June, 2021. The ManCoco coffee shop, Hewitt Street.

John Flanagan, the north Manchester councillor who Trees Not Cars say was inducted onto the planning committee just days before the vote on the Ancoats car park proposal, has agreed to meet me.

The condition is we keep the conversation strictly to matters pertaining to his own ward, Miles Platting & Newton Heath.

This means that in order to put to him the questions I want, I have to do something similar to what I’m about to accuse him of: find some of his residents and ‘fix’ the questions I want them to ask him on my behalf.

Fortunately, according to the pressure group, no less than two hundred and ninety-seven of his residents signed the petition opposing the car park. It doesn’t prove difficult, then, to find someone who would like answers on the controversial vote.

A builder by trade with local politics in his blood, raised in Moss Side and resident in Levenshulme, where his son now largely runs the family business, he arrives late in a welter of apology and trades-manly recrimination (“I did it free of charge…they must have seen my dust sheets…how I didn’t hit someone…”) and seems in conversation to embody the pride of a man who has spent a lifetime rolling up his sleeves on behalf of his community in between telling them the reason there’s a gabled porch-end on their new extension is that they wanted one.

Quizzed about future prospects for Newton Heath on behalf of Nigel of Dean Avenue he beams about new developments in the pipeline on parcels of land across the area.

Questioned whether Miles Platting is being left to its fate prior to being cleared and annexed to the city centre apartment project – on behalf of Paul of Bradford Road – he offers a cut glass car crash of an obfuscation.

Sorry Paul, but it did sound to me a bit like the Platting might be getting knocked down at some future point.

It’s when I ask about the car park vote that the temperature rises.

“Luce of Danson Road asks…” I say this as innocently as I can, like I’m reading it out for the first time: “…were you added to the planning committee before the meeting in order to swing the vote?”

We’ve been locked in each other’s sightline for almost half an hour now. Suddenly, his pupils leap to the corner of his eyes, from where the answer to the question is retrieved in packets of five or six words at a time.

“No. I was added to that committee…at the beginning of the year…I’ll have to check out, you know…So, what usually happens is that you…I’d stopped seats with being an exec member…and one of the rules is that I’ve had…”

“You weren’t on the committee for the previous meeting,” I say. “The month before. Or the meeting before that.”

     “I’ll have to look at the timescale. If those planning applications were in when I was an exec member then I couldn’t be. What happens is…”

“I think you joined the committee a few days before the vote.”

    “So the first time I think it came…I was asked to join the planning committee…”

“…just before the meeting…”

    “Well, I don’t know.”

“Did Sir Richard ask councillors to pass that development?”

Flanagan, I notice, never misses a beat. Whether he’s rambling or parrying or knocking the ball out of the park he just keeps going.

    “It’s illegal for him to do that. And I’ll tell you now…if Richard Leese told me to pass anything, I’d tell him where to go. He wouldn’t do it. He’s not that stupid. That isn’t how planning works.”

“The lady from Trees Not Cars said to me it seemed like everyone spoke against it yet somehow it was passed, as though it had been rehearsed for their benefit.”

    “If I remember…the meeting had a load of kids there…and it wasn’t rehearsed because…you know, they didn’t want any car park at all, so I don’t know how they’ve said we rehearsed…”

“A Labour councillor told me that scrutiny committees are pre-rehearsed and anti-democratic. That there are pre-meetings before scrutiny.”

    “You have a pre-meeting and you have to tell the chair what you’re going to ask.”

“So the questions and answers are pre-arranged and pre-rehearsed?”

“Watch the scrutinies with me on it…do I get in trouble with the chair?”

There’s the ghost of a smile.

“Richard Kilpatrick told me he’s been present as Labour councillors pre-rehearsed questions for a scrutiny committee meeting.”

    “Richard Kilpatrick was on the scrutiny with them. He was in that pre-meeting. So if he says that’s the case, he needs to tell us what questions he was asking.”

“Are there pre-meetings for planning?”

“No.”

“John Leech told me he walked in on one. In David Ellison’s era.”

    “No he didn’t. No he didn’t.”

“A Labour councillor who isn’t on the committee told me they assumed there were pre-meetings for planning.”

    “Let’s go back to John Leech. Did John Leech report that to the city solicitor?”

“I don’t know.”

It’s a good question.

“Well, it’s illegal. So John Leech walked in on a pre-meeting of a planning committee when David Ellison was the chair? The question I would throw back is…can he prove when he reported it? ‘Cos I’ll tell you what, if I walked in and saw something illegal happening I’d report it to the city solicitor. And the city solicitor would have got us before standards. It’s a criminal offence.”

There’s a pause.

“I must say it’s a bit weird these residents haven’t come to me themselves.”

 

My phone buzzes. There’s a message from Lucy in the Confidential office.

“Jonathan has fixed up a big interview with Sir Richard,” she tells me when I call back. “I can’t control him, Danny. We can run your piece alongside.”

 

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